Documenting Despair

Film director Eric Steel set up two cameras on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and kept them rolling from dawn to dusk every day in 2004.

He captured all but one of the 24 suicides that took place that year from the beautiful landmark, which happens to be the world's most-popular suicide spot.

Steel's documentary, "The Bridge," will premiere tonight at New York's Tribeca Film Festival. The film also chronicles the struggles that preceded the suicides and their impact on the friends and family members.

"I think for the families," Steel said, "every second after this happens, the ripple keeps going and they keep looking back and saying did we miss something?"

Philip Manikow, a 22-year-old with a history of mental illness, was one of the people whose death was documented in Steel's film. His parents said that he had planned his suicide for months.

"He knew he was loved," said Manikow's father, Wally Manikow. "He knew he had everything. He could do anything, and yet he felt trapped. That was the only way he could get free."

Steel says his purpose behind making the film is to "make people look harder at the world … around them." While making the film, he discovered that it was difficult to guess who was going to commit suicide just by looking at someone.

"It was hard to tell from the outside who was thinking about jumping," he said. "The contrasts were extraordinary. One man was pacing back and forth. One guy was laughing and talking on his cell phone. He puts down the cell phone and boom. It is very hard to make a profile."

Suicide prevention workers disagree about whether the movie will make the problem better or worse.

"This film is making people aware of suicide and that is important, because as a culture we have managed to ignore it," said Eve Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention.

Other experts worry about copycat suicides.

"The concern here if you are going to show a film, even a documentary, on this kind of act is that it will lead to other people committing suicide by jumping," said Dr. Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Some wonder whether the filmmakers could have stopped the jumpers. Steel says that his team always called authorities when it saw someone preparing to jump, saving at least six people, including a crystal meth addict.

Steel wants a barrier to be erected on the bridge to make it more difficult for people to jump.

"If you're able to save one life or 24 lives, whatever the number in between, you know, that would be significant. It would be significant in all the lives that they touch," he said.

Because the vast majority of the 38,000 people who kill themselves in the United States each year do so behind closed doors, Steel acknowledged that "it can't end at the barrier."

"The solution is finding a bigger and more open way to talk about suicide and finding a broader response to suicide prevention in general," he said.