The Secrets of Suicide

In my role as a Panel member at the British Board of Film Classification, I occasionally see films that have caused the viewing public some disquiet. The Panel’s role is to debate whether such films have been given the most appropriate classification. I enjoy Panel meetings. The debate is penetrating and represents a wide range of value positions. In real terms, the experience brings home to its members how well the BBFC does its job. It rarely errs on the side of reckless tolerance for it operates powerful checks and balances, cross referencing decisions among its regulators and, as I intimated, its panels. Then again, it is hardly ever castigated for being too protective or censorious in its decisions.

The film we discussed most recently was called The Bridge, directed by Eric Steel and released last month. It won’t have much distribution. It is a documentary based on a year of observation of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. In all 24 suicides take place. Some are graphically captured. There are interviews with families and friends of the dead. A central motif follows one suicide, Gene, in recurring images throughout the film, as he prepares himself for his plunge, walking, throwing back his long black hair, rubbing his forehead, being passed by tourists and finally climbing over the railings. He dies as though he knows he is being watched, in a graceful backwards arc, crucified in the camera lens. We see others, less elaborate, clumsier, as though they had not prepared themselves for this final event. The Golden Gate Bridge is an organic element of the whole; mythic, sometimes brooding, sometimes resplendent in the light and shade of sun, fog, storm or eerie darkness. As though anthropomorphised by John Carpenter, it draws suicides to it more than any other single location.

The debate in the Panel centred at one point on the ethics of making the film. Was it a terrible intrusion? Should films feature actual deaths? How could a director record dispassionately such moments of intense human despair? How could an audience be asked to watch it? Would it lead to imitation among those viewers who could feel their own lives peeling and fraying from what may have once been a comforting solidity?

A doctor friend said to me recently that suicide is statistically near the top of the list of ways of dying but is rarely part of the public debate on mortality. Try Googling it. He was right. Watching this film is both harrowing and educative. We are brought up close to something we might prefer to have been locked away in unscanned data. We might resent these suicides in that their perpetrators have rejected us, our friendship, our religious beliefs, our own fear of dying, our preoccupations with staying alive and finding meaning in our daily existence. For them there is one last foray into emotions at which we can only guess. Bleakness? Glory? Erasure? Fulfilment?

Who knows what goes on in the minds of others at the self-imposed culmination of their lives? Try to see this film. It has an emotionless, research-like quality that gives you maximum room to develop your own attitudes and judgments towards a taboo subject that hitherto has remained largely hidden.

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