I guess I got my facts mixed up. Sorry.
Here's a great article on the project.
Bridge to nowhere: Filming the final act
A documentary that shows people committing suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge has been banned by film festivals and provoked fury among victims' relatives. The director told Andrew Gumbel why he made it
They say the Golden Gate Bridge is the most photographed monument in the world. The majestic two-mile span across the mouth of San Francisco Bay is a man-made wonder in the most idyllic of settings, with views of the rolling Marin headlands in one direction and the sun-kissed San Francisco skyline in the other.
But the Golden Gate is also, more sinisterly, the world's most popular location for committing suicide. Since the bridge opened in 1937, more than 1,200 people have made the (usually) fatal leap from the walkway beside the suspension deck to the water more than 250ft below. That works out to one every three weeks.
For several decades, this was San Francisco's dark secret - known to all, but discussed in public by almost nobody. One of the first breaks in the taboo came in the mid-1990s, when the media started reporting that the suicide tally was approaching 1,000. The Marin County coroner's office, which receives the dead bodies recovered from the Bay, begged them to stop reporting numbers for fear that it would trigger a rush of people vying to be number 1,000. The state Highway Patrol duly halted its official count at 997.
Now the issue has been brought glaringly to light by The Bridge, a documentary featuring graphic footage of suicide victims as they pace nervously up and down the walkway, climb over the 4ft railing between it and the void, then tumble to the water below.
Eric Steel, the New York director of the film, set up a crew at the south end of the bridge and kept them there every day during daylight for most of 2004. A second crew captured further footage from the north end. Not much eluded their cameras. Once he had captured the suicides on film, Steel tracked down their families and friends - usually with the help of the coroner's office - and interviewed them to develop as full a picture as possible of who these people were, what kind of demons they lived with, and what, if anything, they told their loved ones about their intentions.
The film has sparked a furore since it started screening in the spring. Several prominent festivals, including Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, refused to show it at all. In San Francisco, it provoked a torrent of criticism - not so much because of its tone or content, but because Steel was perceived to have resorted to deception to get it made. In the letter he wrote to secure his filming permit, he said he was interested in shooting the "powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature", and intended to move on from San Francisco to the great arch in St Louis and the Statue of Liberty. When he interviewed the families of the suicide victims, he did not tell them he had footage of the moment of their loved ones' deaths - provoking one family to fury when it found out the truth.
Steel vigorously denies that his motives were exploitative. The main reason he did not advertise what he was up to was to ward off the possibility that it might encourage someone to kill themselves. "As a film maker," he said, "it's a difficult thing to bear witness to what we saw. It will never not be a part of who I am. That I can live with. I don't think I would have been able to continue if we had provoked someone to jump."
Of the bridge authorities, he said: "They were aware of what we were seeing. We were always, or almost always, the first people to be calling in when we saw something unfold. We let them use our cameras to see what we were seeing. It's disingenuous on their part to act as if they were so shocked."
As for the families, he made his peace with them at a special advance screening. "It was the most terrifying screening I've done," he said. "Every one of the people who were there said: 'We're really glad you did this.' " Even the family of the suicide victim Lisa Smith, who had initially spoken out against him, came around, at least as he tells it. "They said it was hard to watch but they were glad the movie had been made. Lisa's mother, in particular, felt relieved to see her daughter jump and understand that she died instantly, and that when the coast guard retrieved her body she was intact - there was nothing spilling out of her body."
Steel is right to assert that his movie is far from a crude snuff film, as some of his unkinder critics have suggested. The footage of the bridge-jumpers is presented obliquely, chillingly, and with respect for who these individuals are and the pain that they are going through. It is a film about suicide much more than about the bridge, delving deep into the mental health histories of its subjects and sharing with their relatives and friends the anguish of wondering what might have been done to save them.
In that context, the footage of the jumpers on the bridge takes on a real poignancy. We see a long-haired young man called Gene Sprague pace anxiously up and down the walkway for a full 90 minutes before taking the plunge. We see tourists and recreational visitors walking, biking, taking photographs, laughing and, often, seeming oblivious to the human tragedies unfolding. We meet Richard Waters, a tourist from Pittsburgh, who happily snapped away on his digital camera as a girl in a hoody climbed over the safety railing and stood on the ledge. "When I was behind the camera," he explains in the film, "it was almost like it wasn't real." As Steel's cameras captured, however, he snapped out of it, tapped the girl on the shoulder, reeled her back over the railing by her hoody, sat on her chest and called the police on his mobile phone.
The very matter-of-factness of many of the deaths is one of their most shocking aspects. Another interview subject is Susan Ginwalla, a commuter who saw a burly, middle-aged man climb over the railing, hold out his arms and disappear. "When I went into the tower and talked to the highway patrolman," she recounts, "I asked him: 'Is this a rare occurrence or does it happen often?' And he looked at me and kind of smiled and said: 'It happens all the time.' "
By filming the bridge-jumpers from the outside, Steel hoped to find a way to understand the mindset that can lead to suicide. "I had this idea that someone had to walk a parking lot at either end of the bridge and walk out to a spot closer to the middle. And I realised that during that walk, you would be going through the final determinations that you are ending your life. If you could see that, you'd see the manifestation of the most difficult human emotional condition - despair of such magnitude."
His footage is helped enormously by the testimony of a bridge jumper who survived, a troubled young man called Kevin Hines, who has suffered three serious relapses into mental illness since making his leap in 2000 but nevertheless feels glad to be alive and is now a prominent campaigner for a suicide barrier.
Hines describes how he bought a last meal of cheap candy - Starburst and Skittles - from a Walgreen's pharmacy, then cried on the bus all the way to the bridge. He cried for another 40 minutes on the bridge itself, unsure whether to go through with his plan or not. Finally, a woman with a German accent asked him to take her picture. She was clearly oblivious to the torment he was suffering. "I thought, *beep* it, nobody cares," Hines recalls, "and I hurled myself over the bridge." It was in the few seconds' descent that he rediscovered his will to live. He managed to turn his body around from a head first position to a sitting position. The impact with the water shattered his lower lumbar bones and ribs, pieces of which pierced his vital organs but narrowly missed his heart. And so he survived. "I just want to be normal again," Hines says, "but I know I never will be."
Steel was moved to make his film after reading a piece in The New Yorker. But it also resonated with something that had haunted him since 11 September 2001 when, from his office window in lower Manhattan, he watched people jump to their deaths from the twin towers rather than burn in the flames. He asked himself what he would do in the same situation. Then, when he thought about the jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge, he saw an odd parallel. "In their own minds, these people must have felt they had a choice either to throw themselves off the bridge or keep living lives that must have felt similar to them to the inferno at the World Trade Centre," he said. "One is a physical thing, the other a psychological one. But the parallel seemed clear to me."
Steel has had his own share of trauma, which has brought him closer than many to difficult questions of life and death. His brother died of cancer at the age of 17, and a year later his sister was killed by a drunk driver. "I didn't feel suicidal," he said, "but I never felt it was all that far away. I knew there were people for whom the idea entered their heads and was there all the time. These were not people who felt foreign to me."
That said, something about the Golden Gate Bridge is distinctly unusual. Every year, about 38,000 Americans commit suicide, most of them behind closed doors. Doing it in public, at a major tourist destination, is a different proposition. Much has been made of the fact that jumpers head for the Golden Gate Bridge, with its stunning architecture and beautiful backdrop, but almost never throw themselves off the much more workaday Bay Bridge linking San Francisco to Oakland and Berkeley.
In the film, the friends of Gene Sprague grapple with the question of why people like him are drawn to the site. Is it the idea of committing a public act and achieving a certain sort of fame? Is it about achieving the illusion of flying? It's clearly a horrible way to die - the impact crushing bones and impacting organs, even as sharks circle nearby - but it might not necessarily appear that way to people in a desperate and, perhaps, delusional state. "The bridge has a romance, a false romantic promise to it," says a friend of Sprague's, who appears in silhouette and is not named. "It romanticises him a bit in the legend, but he doesn't benefit from it. It's a bit like alcoholics talking about the romance of the bottle. The first sip is good, but everything else is hell."
Steel is clearly angry that the Bridge District has taken no preventive action over the decades. It has put money into a barrier between the pedestrian walkway and the road - even though no pedestrian has ever died in a traffic accident on the bridge. And it is talking now about building a median to reduce the already low risk of head-on collisions between vehicles. "They just don't seem willing to take any preventive measures to protect people who are mentally ill. It has nothing to do with engineering or cost. It comes down to morals."
His film has already had a galvanising effect. A $2m (£1m) study into a possible suicide barrier has now been commissioned. "Visual evidence," Steel said, "makes people bear witness to something that words cannot. The idea that thousands of people are going to be watching this in movie theatres and on DVDs and on television - the prospect must be overwhelming to them."