A Bridge Too Far

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular suicide destination in the world. For a whole year filmmaker Eric Steel filmed the iconic monument and those who took their lives there for his documentary The Bridge. Leigh Singer questions him

What inspired you to make this film?
Eric Steel I witnessed the World Trade Center collapse from my window and I was very aware of the people who chose to jump from the towers rather than perish in the inferno. When I read several years later about the Golden Gate Bridge, I imagined the people who were jumping were, in a similar way, trying to escape their own inferno.

The footage of people jumping is hugely disturbing.
ES It shouldn’t be easy to watch people die. And we were only two people with cameras most of the time. For us to be able to see these things - a bridge two miles long and we’re only watching 25 feet of it … I believe that we were shown things for a reason.

How did you feel the first time you witnessed someone die?
ES Disbelief. If you look at the footage, it’s not beautifully framed - the camera is shaking, it tilts down very quickly - and it’s because I stood up and screamed. Every part of me was revolting against what I was witnessing. And at the same point, right afterwards I felt this is exactly why I was there.

Because that’s exactly what you were waiting for
ES Yes but we were very clear before we shot even a single frame of footage that we were human beings first and filmmakers second. Whenever you see in the film someone has climbed over [the railing], we’ve already called the Bridge Authority. If we hadn’t been there, more people would have died.

Did you ever have moral doubts about what you were filming?
ES If I’d wanted to make a movie that was exploiting these jumps I never would have spent a year interviewing the jumpers’ families. The film is much more about that experience than it is about the few seconds of footage of people jumping off the bridge.

How do you answer critics who say your film only encourages ‘copycat’ suicides?
ES The Golden Gate Bridge already has a copycat problem. These people didn’t get the idea because they saw an image of someone jumping off the bridge; the idea of suicide had been in their minds for quite some time and they’d been struggling with these problems. The collapse of the mental health support system is the real problem here.

The Bridge, Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Fri 11-Mon 14 May.