A Bridge Too Far

By Atkinson, Roland | Clinical Psychiatry News, April 2008 | Go to article overview

A Bridge Too Far


Atkinson, Roland, Clinical Psychiatry News


Recently, for their monthly "Movie Night," our psychiatry residents chose to screen Eric Steel's 2006 production, "The Bridge," the first documentary, to my knowledge, that films suicidal acts as they are occurring, in this case leaps from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (GGB).

Before "Bridge" Steel had been involved as a producer of several narrative films, including "Bringing Out the Dead" and "Angela's Ashes," but he had had no experience with nonfictional filmmaking. According to an article by Jordan Rosenfeld in the Marin County (Calif.) weekly, Pacific Sun (Oct. 20, 2006), the making of "Bridge" was inspired in part by Steel's reading of a 2003 article, "Jumpers," by Tad Friend, in the New Yorker magazine, about GGB suicides (average 23 per year; 98% of leaps are fatal; and, popular beliefs to the contrary, 87% of those who jump are locals). Rosenfeld also reported that a second influence on Steel was his personal witnessing of people leaping to their deaths from the World Trade Towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Methods and Results of the Shoot

Steel set up cameras with powerful zoom lenses on the ground at both ends of the bridge, and filmed every day during daylight hours for a year (calendar year 2004), focusing on "suspicious" individuals, persons the film crew suspected might be potential jumpers. Among the cues they used were: persons walking alone, a "hunched over" posture, listless or agitated behavior, or, when faces could be discerned, a "depressed expression." In a several hour shift, Steel said he might focus on 5 or 6 suspicious people while also scanning perhaps 50 others. (Information presented here on the technical aspects of the film, crew selection and responses, training, and other procedures is included in a 20 minute "making of the film" extra on the DVD of "The Bridge" that is now available.)

Of the 24 completed suicides that year (18 were men), most were captured on film while jumping, and footage of over half is shown in the movie. Witnesses are interviewed, as are surviving family members and friends, the latter painfully conveying their anguish, their varying efforts to cope with their loss and reconcile the event. They tell their own stories and those of their deceased loved ones, stories of struggles with depression, schizophrenia, substance abuse, or losses. These accounts are in every instance poignant, compelling and highly instructive.

The Ethics of Photojournalism

Almost 40 years ago, cinematographer Haskell Wexler made an extraordinary film, "Medium Cool," that, among other themes, outlined the fundamental conflict for photojournalists when confronted by people in danger: whether to remain behind the camera and get the shot or to intervene, to aid the person in peril. A young man--not one of the film crew--interviewed for "Bridge," who had been photographing people walking along the GGB one day, noticed a woman apparently about to jump. He describes the unusual experience that can occur at such a moment. To paraphrase his comments, a situation like this "is not real when looking through the lens; you have to pull yourself away from the camera to grasp what is really happening and take action." (Putting himself in danger, this man was able to pull the woman back to safety.)

The filming crew for "Bridge" consisted of Steel and five or more young amateurs recruited from ads on Craigslist that were purposely vague about the nature of the project. Responders were fully informed, and those still desiring the job were then interviewed. None had a background in mental health or filmmaking. They were taught how to use the equipment and had a single, 2-hour training session with a suicide prevention hotline counselor.

The procedures for intervention are presented with some ambiguity in the film and in the extra ("making of") segment. Whenever a camera operator saw a person they felt might be at serious risk for a jump, they were to use a walkie-talkie to notify the California Highway Patrol (CHP) bridge patrol team. …

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