A Bridge Too Far: Ethical Dilemmas and The Bridge

If I had seen Eric Steel’s 2006 documentary The Bridge at a different time in life, I have no doubts that I would have been impressed by it without reservations.   Steel hired a team of cameramen to film the Golden Gate Bridge for one year, focusing explicitly on the people who chose the bridge as the location for their suicide.  Steel then interviewed the families and friends of the deceased to try and deduce the conditions and events that lead to that person ending their life.  It’s a haunting, effective film that has the power to stimulate discussion about mental illness, exhibitionism, and the various factors that can lead to a suicide.  The fact that I came to The Bridge through a graduate class on documentary ethics, however, means that the film is presented to me along with additional information about the making of the film. 

While I still can’t shake the film’s images, I’m more shaken after learning the specifics behind the film’s creation.  The more I learn and think about the film, the more I struggle with it.  While I can appreciate the film as a final product and can see why the director made certain choices, meditating on the grim images and knowing about the twisted truths and betrayals involved in it’s creation, I know these are choices that I wouldn’t personally make.  In this essay I will write about some of the ethical dilemmas involved in The Bridge, and counter the director’s decisions with how I, as a filmmaker, couldn’t make the same call.

There’s no getting around the fact that suicide is a tricky topic to cover.  A person’s death is very intimate, regardless of the circumstances, and for that reason Steel is a brave filmmaker to take it on in a documentary.  There is a shock factor in The Bridge that does not exist any other, more clinical, documentaries on the same subject: the fact that we witness numerous acts of someone jumping to their death.  The fact that these deaths are occurring off a national monument make the images all the more shocking.  By simply choosing to tell this story in the visual medium of film, Steel is playing with his audience--his film evokes feelings of voyeurism, a snuff film quality.  Most people will be uncomfortable with this imagery but will stick with the film, trusting that the filmmaker’s intentions are good, while others may walk away from it.  Some viewers, and this is the reason I couldn’t intentionally film or exhibit the footage, may enjoy it in some disturbing way.  A filmmaker can’t control his or her audience, but the idea of someone renting the DVD of my film just to watch it Faces of Death style would trouble me.  Maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but I can’t convince myself that hasn’t happened with The Bridge.

An argument could be made that the fact these people chose a public place to commit suicide forfeits their right to privacy.  In fact, that same argument could suggest that they chose a location like The Golden Gate Bridge specifically because they wanted some attention.  It is true that when you appear in a public place, you allow yourself, legally, to be photographed.  However, it’s not the singular individual who’s affected by showing the death- its the friends and family of the individual are affected.  There’s a reason obituaries of people who perform suicide often leave out the cause of death: it’s still a cause of shame for many.  Maybe Steel was trying to address that taboo and the fact that he got family members to talk about the issue (more on that later) speaks to that.   However, I feel that there is an air of exploitation in filming these deaths- even if there is a message, the filmmaker is profiting and/or furthering their career because they filmed these deaths.

The idea of exploitation is one that sticks with me simply because of the medium Steel decided to tell this story in, the feature-length theatrical documentary.  This is a medium that requires a high level of production value and an ideal length of around 70 to 90 minutes (the film is 94 minutes).  It is also, traditionally, the medium the documentary could make the biggest profit.  According to Box Office Mojo, the film grossed more than $205,000 worldwide in limited release.  That doesn’t include DVD sales or any other rights sold.   It wasn’t a huge hit (in comparison, the recent documentary hit The Queen Of Versailles grossed more than 2 Million dollars), but that’s not my point- my point is that, watching the film I felt like it was produced with the intention of maximum profitability.  The film could have been just as effective at half of the length.  The film tells the same kind of story over and over and while it’s the cumulitive effect of the multitude of stories that lead to questioning the causes and inevitability of some suicides, a lot of the soundbites are so repetitive as to become audio/visual wallpaper.  These interviews are also spread out with lots of filler- plenty of representative images of random individuals and families on the bridge, as well as lots of gorgeous shots of the Golden Gate Bridge.  With these high quality shots, professionally scored, it’s easy to see how someone could criticize the film as glorifying the bridge as a suicide location.  A shorter film may not have reached as many eyeballs, but it may have told the story more effectively and avoided some of the questions about altruism and profiting off the pains of others.

Steel’s altruism has come up before.  In interviews I’ve read, Steel never misses a chance to say his crew was trained to “be human first, filmmakers second” and were trained to call a bridge official on speed dial the moment they witnessed anyone stepping on the rail.  They reportedly prevented six suicides this way.  They also filmed 23 of the 24 known suicides off the bridge that year.  If his crew would have been able to prevent all of them, there wouldn’t be a movie.  Steel got permission to film the bridge from various locations under false pretenses, telling bridge authorities that his film’s intent was   “to capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge."  In a way, with it’s long, meditative shots, it does that- but it’s hardly the point or principal intent of the film.   Also, when he interviewed the families and friends of the deceased, he didn’t tell them that he was interviewing them specifically because he had footage of the death and intended to put it in the film.  Steel has claimed that the reason he was not forthcoming about the film’s approach is that he did not want word of the film to spread, encouraging people who would choose that location for suicide because they knew they’d be in a movie.  This is not an unbelievable consequence, but the truth is that it probably would have been far more difficult for Steel to get permission to film the bridge and gain access to these interviews if he had been straightforward.  While I understand that being forthcoming when requesting to film a national monument with such a grim focus could bring some unwelcome press, the family and friends - who have the most at stake emotionally with the content of the film - had the right to know as much about the project as possible.  If they had gone to the press and word got out, maybe that’s a sign that the family wasn’t comfortable with the approach and felt the film was harmful.

Steel told the BBC "The point was to begin a more frank dialogue about mental illness, and it required people see these things in order to do that."  However, the film’s sensational approach and the controversy surrounding it has overshadowed any sincere discussions about the uncomfortable subject of suicide that have resulted because of the film.  It’s legacy as a learning tool will be less in psychology classes on the topic of suicide and more in ethics classes where filmmakers like myself will resolve to try and make our points without shock tactics and deceptions.

Watch The Bridge:

Jacob Rosdail is a Documentary Filmmaker and Co-Founder of FWOAC


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