SAN FRANCISCO, May 5 (Reuters) Every few weeks, someone climbs over the railing of San Francisco's famed Golden Gate Bridge and jumps to their death at one of the highest-profile suicide sites in the world.
Local media rarely report the deaths, and few people have seen the dramatic suicides -- until now. Filmmaker Eric Steel's new film ''The Bridge,'' which shows six suicides, premiered recently at New York's Tribeca and San Francisco's film festivals.
Steel, 42, set up camera crews at both sides of the bridge that connects San Francisco to the Marin Headlands. They monitored bridge activity during all daylight hours of 2004 and recorded 23 suicides.
When the public first learned of the project, some protested and even called it a snuff film. Steel, a former film executive directing his first movie, said the critics misinterpreted his intention.
''When I first got to the theater, there were people who were holding up protest signs,'' he said of the first San Francisco screening this week. ''People made a lot of assumptions and came to a lot of conclusions without having seen the movie.'' ''There were experts saying this isn't a good thing, but I don't think anyone who has seen the movie has had that reaction,'' he told Reuters. ''The idea is to try to help people and to save lives by raising awareness.'' The film opens with eerie music and a view of the nearly two-mile-(3-km-) long suspension bridge. Eventually a man in jeans and a green shirt climbs over the four-foot-(1.2-meter-) high barrier and plunges to his death.
Although the six people jumping are the most striking images of the unnarrated film, family and friends of the deceased describe their lives and present often sympathetic profiles of troubled people.
ESCAPING 'EMOTIONAL INFERNO' Steel said he posted camera crews with telephoto lenses on both shores to zero-in on people who exhibited irregular behavior such as pacing back and forth.
''Not a day went by when we did not see a person or people who fit that description,'' he said. ''There were days when we watched people walk back and forth for several hours. Almost all the people we filmed walked off the bridge.'' He said his film crews notified bridge officials whenever someone climbed over the railing -- calls he said saved lives.
In recording about 10,000 hours of video, the film crews captured 23 of 24 known suicides in 2004, Steel said, some with just a wide angle photo that shows a splash about 220 feet (67 meters) below.
Steel saw parallels with horrific images of people jumping from the burning World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
''This idea that the people had chosen to jump rather than die in the inferno certainly weighed in on all this,'' he said. ''I believe that people who were choosing to jump from the bridge were doing so in order to escape, you know, their own emotional inferno.'' Golden Gate Bridge officials are concerned the many hours of unused film could reveal security secrets and are holding talks with Steel about the outtakes, said Celia Kupersmith, general manager of the Golden Gate Bridge District.
Officials at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which granted Steel permission to film for a year for a 65 dollar fee, have expressed displeasure that he told them his film's focus was the interaction between the bridge and nature.
''The park service was disappointed that Mr. Steel was not more forthcoming about what his project actually was,'' said Rudy Evenson, chief of special park uses.
For decades, local officials have considered proposals to build a suicide barrier, but rejected the idea for financial, structural or aesthetic reasons. Officials recently approved funding to conduct the most extensive study of the issue in a generation.
Reuters CH DB0952