Death in America

A shocking documentary about jumpers from the Golden Gate Bridge has prompted a long-overdue debate

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is the most photographed man-made structure in America. It is also the world's leading suicide location. More than 1,250 people have thrown themselves off the bridge since it opened to the public 70 years ago.

In the opening minutes of a controversial new documentary, we watch as a man stands on the Golden Gate walkway, staring down at the water 67 metres below. Coming to a decision, he hoists himself over the low railing and gains a foothold on the other side. A moment goes by and then, before our eyes, he pushes away into mid-air. We watch him fall. Four entire seconds stretch out before the splash.

It's a shocking start to a film that has caused outrage since word of it began to filter out last year. A first-time director named Eric Steel trained a number of cameras on the Golden Gate throughout 2004, capturing all but one of that year's 24 suicidal leaps from the bridge on camera. The press got wind of the story and, before Steel's film had even been screened, it was being denounced as "irresponsible", "exploitative", "voyeuristic", "ghastly" and "immoral". One commentator labelled it a "snuff movie".

Men and women do fall to their deaths on screen in The Bridge - six in total - but Steel argues that those who come to see it for voyeuristic reasons will leave disappointed. The film is more concerned with the circumstances that led to each jump, which it explores through interviews with witnesses and people close to the victims. "Each splash," says Steel, "sets in motion a very intimate journey into a person's life."

These splashes occur with sickening regularity. Tad Friend, the staff writer at the New Yorker whose 2003 article "Jumpers" inspired Steel to make the film, described them to me as "a very steady metronome of people jumping off the bridge - about one every two weeks". This ratio does not take into account the failed attempts, thwarted by police patrols and passers-by, nor the many deaths that go unreported every year.

"Jumpers are drawn to the Golden Gate because they believe it's a gateway to another world," says Dr Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. "They think that life will slow down in those final seconds and then they'll hit the water cleanly, like a high diver."

"The bridge has a false romantic promise to it," says a friend of Daniel "Ruby" Rubinstein, one of the jumpers in the film. Ruby couldn't afford health insurance, and ended up begging his friends for antidepressants. "Maybe, walking out there, he had a romantic moment or two . . . But hitting the water can't have been fun."

"It is a violent, vile, terrible, murderous death," 24-year-old Kevin Hines tells me. "People believe that you just hit the water and disappear into the abyss and then you die. But in reality, it's painful and it lasts a long time." He should know. Severely bipolar, Hines went through a particularly black episode in September 2000, when he was 18. He had seen a website that pinpointed the Golden Gate as an effective place to commit suicide, so the next morning he took a bus there. He paced back and forth along the walkway for 40 minutes, weeping openly. A German woman asked him to take her photograph. He obliged, then thought to himself, "Fuck it, nobody cares," and vaulted over the railing.

"The second my hands left the bar, I realised I didn't want to die," he says. Somehow, he manoeuvred himself into an upright position and endured the 120kph impact. Splinters of bone from his lower lumbar region flew up into his organs but missed his heart, and he became one of 26 people who have survived the plunge. "Do you want to know why the Golden Gate is such an attraction for people trying to end their lives?" Hines asks. "It's the four-foot rail."

Ever since the bridge was completed in 1937, people have been campaigning for a suicide- prevention barrier. Friend highlighted the issue in his New Yorker article, noting that, over the years, proposed barrier solutions have been rejected by the Golden Gate board for aesthetic and financial reasons. He believes that The Bridge has pushed the campaign forward. "It has had an immediate practical effect, and in that way alone I think it's a very important film." Steel is less certain. "If you stop the jumps," he says, "people will probably find other places to end their lives. It requires a more global approach. You have to fix the problem at the bridge, but you also need to come up with better ways to deal with mental illness and suicide prevention in the community. One without the other is pointless."

In 2004, as Steel and his crew were filming the Golden Gate, 32,439 people killed themselves in America. By contrast, there were 17,357 homicides that year. The rate of suicides continues to stand at almost twice the murder rate. If this statistic is widely known in the United States, it is not reflected in the media. News outlets tend not to report suicides for fear of provoking copycat attempts - a justifiable fear in San Francisco, where countdowns to the 500th and 1,000th Golden Gate fatalities in 1973 and 1995 sparked jumping frenzies. Nor does suicide receive much coverage in the arts, and the furore generated by Steel's film, one of few recent attempts to raise questions about suicide on screen, supports the notion that the subject is taboo.

"In documentaries about gang violence, or Rwanda, or anything not involving suicide, showing death on screen is OK," says Hines. "But if it's about doing it to yourself - that's untouchable." Part of the problem, in his view, is the stigma attached to mental illness. "Even people in mental health can be prejudiced," he says. "I have to live with it every day. Because I'm labelled as bipolar and I did what I did, I must be a complete psychopath." Hines has nothing but praise for Steel's film. He is adamant that, rather than glorifying death at the bridge, the film is an effective deterrent, and he hopes it will go some way towards breaking the silence.

The Bridge may be a force for positive change, but certain troubling ethical issues remain. When Steel applied for a shooting permit in November 2003, he concealed his true intentions, pitching a study of the "spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge". The friends and families of those who jumped, whom Steel interviewed while the shoot was still under way, were also kept in the dark.

"I couldn't risk word getting out and having someone die as a result of the film," Steel says. "Clearly, there are people who are unbalanced and who would be seeking attention in the worst possible way. I had to have enough faith in my own sensibility and my ability to be respectful with the footage."

Even if the authorities had agreed to the actual project, media pressure would have halted the shoot within days. It is clear, however, that the director's decision to dupe people connected with the suicides is the weakest link in an argument for an already controversial project.

When news of the film broke, some of the interviewees spoke angrily to the press. Now, unexpectedly, they are becoming Steel's strongest line of defence. Following a screening for friends and families in San Francisco last April, one of them - Mary Manikow - retracted her complaint that she had been "used", saying she felt "positively pleased" to have been involved with the film. Another, Matt Rossi, gave the film-maker a tearful hug and thanked him for making it.

The Bridge premièred at the San Francisco Film Festival at the end of April. In May, four deaths and 11 attempted jumps were reported by the Golden Gate board, which wasn't slow to blame the increase on extensive coverage for the film. The director is unrepentant. "From my experience, April to June was always the worst period at the bridge," he says. "Of course the authorities want to make me the bad guy here. But the only way to stop suicides is to put up a barrier. The answer is not to stop showing the movie."

Friend agrees. "Since the bridge's status as a suicide magnet is hardly a secret, people are going to continue jumping off it even in the absence of media attention. Perhaps, rather than ignoring the problem, one should try to address it." Steel is quick to emphasise that the camera operators, who were planted on either side of the bridge at a considerable distance from the walkway, alerted bridge patrols whenever they believed someone was planning to jump. He claims that six deaths were averted as a result. "I guarantee there has not been a film made about Iraq in which the film-maker can say they saved six lives."

The Marin County coroner, Ken Holmes, announced last month that at least 34 people died at the bridge in 2006. A study of suicide deterrents (the eighth undertaken by the bridge board to date) has yet to reach a decision. And meanwhile, at a steady pace of about one every two weeks, the jumps continue to happen.

"The Bridge" (18) is in cinemas from 16 February