A snuff movie for the arthouse crowd
The Bridge, which shows 23 people jumping to their deaths from Golden Gate Bridge, teeters on the edge of celebrating suicide.
Filmmaker Eric Steel and his colleagues set up cameras around the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco to film people committing suicide at the start of 2004. Twenty-four people killed themselves that year by jumping, and Steel has the footage of 23 of these suicides. The Bridge, showing in selected British cinemas now, is the end result.
It opens with a bright sunlit view of the red bridge rising magnificently above the clouds – a deliberately heavenly image. The camera closes in, locating the bustle of many different people on the bridge. Some are talking on their mobile phones, others are pointing, looking up and down, chatting away with each other.
As you watch this opening scene, you wait in the darkness of the cinema. You wait for the person who will jump. You wonder if it will be the man with black hair or the woman with the rucksack. Someone puts his hand on the ledge; your stomach lurches. Then he carries on walking.
Another walks up to the edge, and suddenly jumps. As a viewer of the film, you are sitting in a room full of people and watching human beings throw themselves to their deaths. The amplified ‘splash’ when they hit the water serves to remind you, in case you shut your eyes, that someone just plunged into the bay.
With its string and piano soundtrack, panoramic shots and lack of a central narrative or presenter, The Bridge is experiential and manipulative. You sit in a state of tension, anticipating the moment when another person will jump, because the shots of the jumpers are interspersed with footage of people milling around on the bridge doing normal everyday things. The jumps are the ‘come shots’ in what is surely a grubbier film than any porno.
The one question that occupied my mind when watching The Bridge was: why? Not why did these people kill themselves – there will be many complex reasons for their deaths – but why film it? Steel told BBC News: ‘The point was to begin a more frank dialogue about mental illness, and it required people to see these things in order to do that.’ (1) So to have a dialogue about mental illness, you have to watch distraught people hurl themselves to their deaths?
Of course it isn’t necessary to watch someone die in order to appreciate that some people are so desperate that they see death as some kind of relief. For all the high-minded justifications about dialogue, The Bridge doesn’t ask or answer any broader questions. Such as: what are the social and personal influences on suicide; how does this act differ from one society to another? It doesn’t ask if anything could be done to lower the number of suicides, or prevent them, and nor does it put forward arguments for more mental health provision, or new drugs, or different kinds of support systems for people suffering from mental illness.
In the film, Steel talks to some of the families of those who jumped. Most of their testimonies focus on the days leading up to the tragic event. They talk about the last words that were said: ‘He phoned me on the bridge’; ‘I shut the door and never saw her again’; ‘He called to say goodbye’. Like the footage of the jumpers, the focus of the interviews is also mostly on the act of suicide itself.
In one section of the film, a happy family is taking photos of one another on the bridge. There is a jumper behind them. He leaps. It shocks and disturbs their day out. Because they witnessed the suicide, the family, including the children, are interviewed about it. Apart from the troubling impact the event had on them, the fact that they saw it doesn’t mean they have any particular or brilliant insight, into this individual suicide or Steel’s chosen theme of mental illness. They are simply there, it seems, to express shock – to contribute to the film’s overall eerie sense of voyeurism and discomfort.
By showing people throwing themselves off the bridge, cut together with commentary from witnesses or family members, the film actually dehumanises the suicides. The person who died is defined by their ending only, by the fact that they died.
This isn’t just an unpleasant film which casts little light on serious social and personal problems. By treating suicide on the bridge with a kind of awe, complete with music, drama and surprise, the camera and filmmaker imbue the deathly leaps with meaning. In filming people throwing themselves over the ledge, again and again, and then talking endlessly about that suicide with others, the film almost seems to revel in suicide.
For all the twaddle peddled by the promoters of the film about ‘raising difficult questions’ or ‘helping people’, The Bridge comes across as little more than a snuff movie for the arthouse crowd; it is on the verge of celebrating suicide.
(1) Director’s year at suicide bridge, BBC News, 16 February 2007
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