Always alone, they pace, hang their heads, linger just a bit too long. Some cry, jam hands into pockets, pull jackets tighter around them. They remove sunglasses, backpacks and purses.
And with traffic and tourists rushing past, they climb over the four-foot railing and jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.
Just a few minutes into Eric Steel’s new documentary, “The Bridge,” it becomes easy for viewers to spot the jumpers. But for the camera operators whose lenses were trained on the world-famous span from dawn until dusk every day of 2004, it wasn’t always so easy.
“It was a surprise every time someone jumped,” Steel, 42, said by phone from New York, where his film premiered Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival.
“In a way, they seemed to be engaged in the world just like everyone else was,” he said. “But they had been on a similar path for some length of time ... mental illness, substance abuse, loss in their families, loss of self-esteem, loneliness, the difficulties of everyday living. If there was a way to turn people inside out, you could see these things instantly.”
The film opens the same week transportation officials here approved a two-year, $2 million study on whether to erect a suicide barrier on the bridge. An estimated 1,200 people have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate since it opened in May 1937.
“Suicide is the last taboo. It’s just not seen. It happens in locked rooms, in dormitories, in a barn or in the woods somewhere,” Steel said. “Choosing a public place, that meant something. That was significant. ... It’s happening in public over and over again unabated.”
Steel’s film tells the stories of a handful of the two dozen men and women who committed suicide at the bridge in 2004. He interviews friends, family and witnesses, using no narration and very little music. He lets the people tell the story and they do. It’s dramatic, evocative, powerful. And controversial.
Steel created a stir after revealing he lied about his project back in 2003. In his permit application to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which manages the piece of property where he set up his two cameras, Steel said he intended “to capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Steel now says he lied to protect people. For that same reason, he said he chose not to tell family and friends of victims he had footage of their loved ones’ deaths.
“To me, the worst-case scenario was if word got out that we were filming around the clock ... someone would get it into his or her head to go to the bridge and immortalize him or herself on film,” Steel said. “That’s why we didn’t tell people.”
There was a time when area newspapers routinely reported on the bridge suicides. When the number of deaths neared 500, and later 1,000, people often rushed to secure their own place in the historical record.
Bridge spokeswoman Mary Currie, who last year called Steel’s project a grim “invasion of privacy,” said Thursday she had tickets to Sunday’s West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Film Festival.
“I want to understand what people are reacting to,” she said, adding that officials at her agency, the Golden Gate Bridge District, aren’t meant to be “content cops.”
Unless the film glamorizes suicide or talks about the mystery or majesty or beauty of death, it should have a positive impact, according to Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention.
However, Meyer, who said she trained Steel’s camera operators on suicide prevention, recommended that people who’ve lost someone to suicide probably shouldn’t see the movie.
“There is no mystery,” she said. “It’s about pain. It’s about availability of a lethal means.”