'The Bridge': Cameras as Witness to Tragedy Since it was first erected during the Great Depression, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has been a magnet for despondent people looking to take their own lives by jumping from the span. In 2004 alone, there were at least 24 suicide attempts -- documentary director Eric Steel filmed the bridge every day that year, and recorded 23 of those leaps.
NPR logo

'The Bridge': Cameras as Witness to Tragedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6392776/6392777" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Bridge': Cameras as Witness to Tragedy

'The Bridge': Cameras as Witness to Tragedy

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6392776/6392777" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

We want to warn you that this next story may be hard for some listeners to hear. It's about suicide. My colleague Alex Chadwick has more.

ALEX CHADWICK: Madeleine, I used to work in San Francisco, and in my head I still see images of the Golden Gate Bridge. On a ferry boat across the Bay one evening, the bridge pylons exactly framed a cloud that had settled on the distant horizon of the Pacific. The setting sun lined itself up behind the cloud and made a hot glowing outline all along the rim of the gray mass.

It was a perfect moment, an amazing setting for a film. But the new documentary, The Bridge, juxtaposes this scenic beauty with the horrific images of people jumping to their deaths.

(Soundbite of movie "The Bridge")

Unidentified Woman: I think the bridge has a romance, a false romantic promise to it, because he's dead. But he doesn't benefit from it. So what if his story has that at the end? He's gone.

CHADWICK: Eric Steel directed The Bridge. He set up cameras and recorded every day in 2004. There were 24 suicides that year. He videotaped 23 of them and interviewed family members, friends and people who witnessed the deaths. I asked Eric Steel why he wanted to make this film.

Mr. ERIC STEEL (Director, The Bridge): I saw the World Trade Centers fall from my office and I was very aware of the people who had jumped out of the building rather than die in the inferno. And when I read in the New Yorker about two years later that the Golden Gate Bridge was the popular suicide destination in the world, I guess I saw some connection. I imagined that the people who were jumping off the bridge were making a choice to escape this emotional inferno that they were living in.

The idea that two dozen or so people do this every single year, it just sort of felt like if you sat there at the bridge for an entire year and watched and watched you would learn a great deal about something that people don't often see.

CHADWICK: Just that first man you show jumping, he's so calm. He's so ordinary. Nothing is going to happen in this moment, and then something does that is horrific.

Mr. STEEL: It was sort of like that all the time at the bridge. You know, you'd be watching people and once you knew that it could happen to anybody, you were waiting and watching with such high anxiety. Every time you someone walk out onto the bridge alone, you sort of thought, oh my god, this person might be getting ready to end their life.

CHADWICK: Did you think you knew?

Mr. STEEL: I mean, every time we tried to come up with a profile - I mean, if you look back at our log books, they're filled with notes that say, you know, man walking alone with his hooded sweatshirt pulled down over his head, or, you know, woman pacing back and forth pulling her hair, or person crying.

You know, every time we'd try to make a sort of compendium of physical attributes, we were proved wrong. I mean the first person that I actually saw in close up climb over was a man who was jogging one minute and he was talking on his cell phone and laughing, and then he hung up his phone and climbed over. It just seemed so unlikely.

CHADWICK: When you saw people who seemed to be in distress, did you feel I should go up there and try to save that person?

Mr. STEEL: Well, I mean, I think we felt anxiety every day. I mean, not a day went by when we weren't sure that we were watching someone who might be thinking about ending their life. But most of the time those people just walked off. And so if we had called or done something every single time we were anxious, it would have been like the boy who cried wolf.

So we had to set some sort of guidelines. And our guidelines were that any time someone stepped up onto the rail, that was when we would call. We were about half a mile away from the bridge, so we couldn't really run up there. But we did have our cell phones programmed with the bridge police. Sometimes we were able to save people's lives and sometimes, you know, sadly, we weren't.

(Soundbite of movie "The Bridge")

Unidentified Man #1: There's obviously a fuzzy line between doing nothing and doing what would have prevented it. And who knows where that line is. Initially several of his other friends went out there as a group, because they knew the light pole number where he had jumped. I couldn't go.

But a couple of months later I did go and it was very difficult. I'll never be able to sort of drive across the bridge again without some kind of emotional reaction. Something else I'm pissed off at him about. Such a great bridge.

CHADWICK: I've done a lot of interviewing and - I mean, I've done a lot of interviewing - and I could see that you, I mean, you spent a lot of time talking to these people. You got them to drop their barriers, which are normally there in interviews with people. They talked intimately with you, they didn't spare themselves, and they didn't spare the people they were talking about. It's very, very difficult to achieve that in an interview. I was impressed.

Mr. STEEL: Well, thank you. I have to say, I mean I've never done interviews before I did this, and I know that the scariest phone call I ever had to make was to the Manaco(ph) family, and they had just lost their son and, you know, I thought, well, what do I use to convince them to do this? And really they were so generous, even before I asked, that my job was sort of easy. Their job was actually hard.

I mean, no matter how hard it was for me to make that phone call, it must've been much harder for them to tell the stories that they did.

(Soundbite of movie "The Bridge")

Mr. WALLY MANACO(ph) (Father of Suicide Victim): For me, he said he was just going to go down so deep that even if he changed his mind, he couldn't swim to the top. But the coroner said it was over instantly.

Ms. MARY MANACO(ph) (Mother of Suicide Victim): Boy, imagine what this looks like to people. They probably look at us and say, what kind of mother and father were they?

Mr. MANACO: Yeah.

Ms. MANACO: I wasn't perfect, but I mean I don't think I was such a terrible mother.

CHADWICK: They're the parents of Philip Manaco. Wally and Mary Manaco, the parents of Philip Manaco. He left a bag on a walkway with a camera. He'd taken photos from the bridge to show what he was feeling to his parents? Isn't there something impossibly cruel about that?

Mr. STEEL: You know, every person who's suicidal isn't exactly thinking clearly, so I think what - the message he was leaving is a little convoluted. But I think it was meant in an odd way to reassure them that he was in God's hands and not struggling here. The odd thing about these photographs, to me - I was shooting that morning and it was a sunny day out at the bridge, and there were a lot of people there. In my footage, you know, the bridge is filled with people. And in his, there's not a single person in any of these shots. It's all very grey. And it was color film, and it just sort of shows that, you know, for people struggling with these mental illnesses, it's not just that life is hard for them, but they really see things very differently. I mean they see the world in a completely - from a completely different viewpoint than most people without mental illnesses.

CHADWICK: Eric Steel, director and photographer, in some part, of the new film The Bridge, opening around the country today. Eric Steel, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. STEEL: It's my pleasure. Thank you for having me.

BRAND: That interview by my colleague Alex Chadwick. The Bridge chronicles the Golden Gate Bridge suicides in 2004.

We want to leave you with one story that stood out from the rest, the story of a young man who survived his jump.

(Soundbite of movie "The Bridge")

Unidentified Man #2: The second my hands left the bar, I said I don't want to die. What am I going to do? This is like, this is it. I'm dead. So I said, well, maybe if I get head - or feet first, maybe, maybe I'll live. And I went down about 40, 50 feet, didn't know which was up or down. I was awake, alive. So I reached the surface, I guess, 'cause I saw some sort of light, and I was screaming for help, and I couldn't really scream. My voice was gone. I couldn't yell. I was like help, help me. And I felt something brush by my leg. I was like, Oh great, I didn't die jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, a shark is going to eat me. I'm like, this is ridiculous. Years later, I found out - as a matter of fact last year I found out, it wasn't a shark. It was a seal circling me, and apparently it was the only thing keeping me afloat, and you cannot tell me that wasn't God, because that's what I believe, and that's what I'll believe until the day I die.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.