Jason Scott
February 2, 2005 11:39 AM   Subscribe

The Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Documentary is going to be an interesting project. Filmmaker Eric Steel applied for a permit to film the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco for a year, saying he was trying to "capture the grandeur" of the bridge. But what he actually ended up doing was capture 19 suicides and many attempts. He is now working on a feature-length documentary about these suicides, and has 100 hours of interviews with family members, psychiatrists, and some of the people who attempted suicide but didn't follow through. Now that he's revealed what his documentary is and what it will be about, a lot of people are pretty ticked off.
posted by jscott (25 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Brilliant! Genius!
posted by shoepal at 11:43 AM on February 2, 2005

This filmmaker clearly started off his film career on the wrong foot. I'm sure this will be an interesting project, but his ability to get co-operation from any type of public official in the future is severely compromised.

On Preview: He obviously intended to focus on the suicides from the start.
posted by boymilo at 11:46 AM on February 2, 2005

Is there really anything else interesting that could've been filmed?
posted by graventy at 11:53 AM on February 2, 2005

Funny how they'd get pissed off because he blatantly lied to them about his intentions for making the film. I'd expect a lawsuit to be coming rather soon.

And he deserves to be sued even though the subject matter is probably very compelling. He wouldn't have been given permission to do it if he'd been truthful and he shouldn't be allowed to profit from deception.
posted by fenriq at 11:58 AM on February 2, 2005

The person who should really be ticked off is Natalie Jeremijenko, whose project "Suicide Box" is the, um, inspiration for Steel's documentary. Its bad enough that he is duplicitious; but at least he could have been original about it, instead of recreating a project thats been done before.
posted by googly at 12:03 PM on February 2, 2005

My brother did volunteer work for a suicide prevention hotline in San Francisco for a few months a couple of years ago. If you walk the span of the golden gate bridge there are phones every hundred or so feet that are direct lines to suicide hotline numbers. The golden gate bridge for some reason attracts a large amount of suicides, people FLY IN from all over the country, specifically to die there, its very odd.

I think this is definitely a story that needs to be told. I would definitely be interested in why a person would pick that spot to die, as opposed to the comfort of their own home, this isnt some sort of whim, or spur of the moment decision, they plotted this out and decided this was where they wanted to die and actively made it happen.

Its a great idea and I hope the filmmarker is allowed too release it without to many problems.
posted by skrike at 12:03 PM on February 2, 2005

I'm still wrapping my mind around the fact that he had to get a permit to film the bridge (yeah, I know: 9-11-2001 'changed everything')
posted by tippiedog at 12:04 PM on February 2, 2005

Let me just say from experience that making any film, documentary or tv show is all about convincing people who don't want to do something, to do something.

His lie is pretty egregious, but considering the deceptions involved in the making of any picture (don't get me started on reality TV!) it's pretty normal.
posted by fungible at 12:05 PM on February 2, 2005

Don't misunderstand me, I think its a very important subject (though the downstream effect will be more people coming to die by jumping from the bridge) and it should be told.

But I firmly believe he needs to be held accountable for the deciet.
posted by fenriq at 12:13 PM on February 2, 2005

He wouldn't have been given permission to do it if he'd been truthful

Having morbid taste does not override the 1st Amendment. If he'd be truthful, he had every reasonable right to expect permission however relucantly granted. The state doesn't get to censor stories it finds distateful. If they'd turned him down the ACLU would have given the city hell. The filmmaker could have gotten his permission legitimately,. On the other hand, if there'd been a public controversy and court order then the issue would be a lot more complicated by those who'd gravitate to the bridge because of the allure of the cameras. Either to end their life dramatically onscreen, or else seek their 15 minutes by seeing if they could sucker the authorities into believing that they were about to jump. Imagine the frat pranks alone.

Why is putting up a suicide fence only something to maybe possibly someday consider?? If raising awareness of the number of suicides/attempts finally gets that done, then perhaps the lie was worth ruining his journalistic credibility over.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:14 PM on February 2, 2005

googly, excellent citation of Jeremijenko, but the two films don't seem to be compatible beyond being about suicides and the Golden Gate Bridge. From at least the descriptions of the documentary as Steel intends to produce it, he intends to create context and background on the suicides, with family members and other interviews describing the nature of suicide and the effect of it. The Suicide Box work appears to be a tech demo/art project approach, which is definitely different.

In other words, I think it's a case of following a line of exploration that has a lot of interest and curiousity attached to it, and I'm sure there have been a number of suicide-related documentaries over the year.

As for subterfuge in Steel's case, there's definitely prior cases of that. Most recently, Supersize Me used hidden cameras quite a bit, and when they were flat-out prevented from being in a McDonald's, they simply walked out to the parking lot and ate with the logo clearly in the background.
posted by jscott at 12:34 PM on February 2, 2005

I like how the bridge officials insinuate that the filmmaker's a terrorist at the end of the last article. See also this FPP linking to a related piece in The New Yorker.
posted by hyperizer at 12:37 PM on February 2, 2005

nakedcodemonkey, other bridges in the Bay area have suicide fences, as does the Empire State Building in NYC. In the case of the Empire State, someone got over it, but he was on a flat-out run from the elevator and scaled the wall in nearly a single adrenaline-rushed move.

I believe the current Golden Gate's railing is 4 feet high. Likely there's some reticence to caging off the people who walk across the bridge.
posted by jscott at 12:38 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

From what I recall of the 'Suicide Box' project, I think it was a hoax film. They set up the camera from the shore, and then dropped big bags of sugar (or something similar) from the bridge. The distance of the shot and the low video quality made it believable, but no actual suicides were filmed, much less as automatically as the project site states.

This documentary is something else again. I'm sure the director is familiar with the Suicide Box project, but he is making an entirely different film. He's managed to film the actual suicides (and attempts) and has also gone to the great length to document the lives of the people surrounding these events. It's a much more expansive approach, and I don't think it unoriginal at all.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:46 PM on February 2, 2005

I'm still wrapping my mind around the fact that he had to get a permit to film the bridge

The impression I get from the last link on the FPP is that the permit was required because he was setting up his camera in a public park. Not simply "to film the bridge," which he presumably could have done from someone's front yard that had a bridge view.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:13 PM on February 2, 2005

"I'm not sure if you are aware of this,'' he added, "but on several occasions during the year, my crew and I were the first callers to the bridge patrol offices when we saw these events begin to unfold."

Art, expression, inspiring compassion, whatever. I don't really know if what this guy did was illegal; but how much would it cost to extend his grant (or whatever he's got) so that he can do this every year? Or hire somebody who will?
posted by koeselitz at 1:29 PM on February 2, 2005

jscott, you're probably right. Steel's and Jeremijenko's motives do indeed appear to be quite different - and indeed I think that Jerimijenko has been criticized for the coldness and distance of her project.

kaibutsu, its my impression that the Suicide Box did in fact capture some genuine suicide attempts. But I agree that Steel's is a much more expansive approach.

I guess that's the difference between "art" and documentary...
posted by googly at 1:42 PM on February 2, 2005

The impression I get from the last link on the FPP is that the permit was required because he was setting up his camera in a public park. Not simply "to film the bridge," which he presumably could have done from someone's front yard that had a bridge view.

Don't assume that someone wouldn't have tried to require a permit for that either. Homeland security and other law enforcement authorities have been known to make some pretty outlandish claims lately about the legality of photographing bridges and other public structures.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:28 PM on February 2, 2005

Interesting fact: Most of the people who jump do so facing towards the city.

When I was younger, the suicide statistics used to be announced on the news, but they decided that was maybe too encouraging so they stopped.

I wonder if he had to get releases from the family members to show the suicides.
posted by blissing at 3:05 PM on February 2, 2005

Premise: People are assholes.
Fact: Some of them have video cameras.
Conclusion: Having video cameras does not stop them from being assholes.
posted by JGreyNemo at 3:26 PM on February 2, 2005

Interesting fact: Most of the people who jump do so facing towards the city.

I've heard this ascribed to jumpers' wanting to look toward where the people are, either for the attention or to bid farewell. But then again the side facing the city is where the pedestrian walkway is, while the other side (facing the Pacific) is supposed to be reserved for bicyclists.
posted by twsf at 3:37 PM on February 2, 2005

I found the New Yorker article hyperizer linked to (via previous FPP) really well written and interesting. Favorite tidbit:

Many jumpers wrap suicide notes in plastic and tuck them into their pockets. “Survival of the fittest. Adios—unfit,” one seventy-year-old man said in his valedictory; another wrote, “Absolutely no reason except I have a toothache.”
posted by a_day_late at 6:07 PM on February 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I don't know, this film doesn't sound exploitative, you could do a really impartial look at how suicide impacts lives and make a film that ends up discouraging it in the end. You don't really need to have the actual suicide on film to make that kind of film, but I guess it could be used to drive the finality of death home.

He doesn't seem like a hollywood guy trying to make bank on a lie. Sounds like a filmmaker that wanted to take a long slow look at a weird bit of human behavior and had to lie to get permits along the way.
posted by mathowie at 10:26 PM on February 2, 2005

Fascinating, I hope I get a chance to watch it.

I noticed the insinuation that he was a terrorist at the end there too - if they were afraid of that, they wouldn't let people film the bridge, would they? If they get the Department of Homeland Security involved though, this guy's film will never see the light of day.
posted by agregoli at 9:20 AM on February 3, 2005

Well it appears the documentary is already having some effect. Public outcry has forced bridge officials to take the first baby steps toward building a suicide fence:
Officials of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District voted Thursday to develop a plan and explore funding options for the suicide barrier...

...About 1,300 people have taken the fatal plunge over the past seven decades, including four already this year.

...The idea of building a suicide barrier has been floating around for decades. In 1999, the district considered building a barrier, but the plan was spiked because there was no guarantee it would stem suicide attempts, and some felt it would compromise the bridge's aesthetics.

The movement to erect a barrier gained momentum earlier this year when bridge officials learned that filmmaker Eric Steel had filmed 19 people jumping off the bridge during a yearlong project...

[It's expected to take] two years and $2 million to develop a plan for the barrier and another two years to build it.
[emphases added]
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 10:11 PM on February 25, 2005

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