October 6, 2006

First CIFF weekend features human pathos and joy

Chicago is one of the great cinema cities in the United States, a statement that is very easy to make each autumn when the Chicago International Film Festival rolls around. Despite the much-anticipated special screenings of Babel and The Fountain, it’s the smaller indie flicks, foreign imports, and documentaries that really make the film festival worth its ticket price. I was able to obtain screeners for two such releases, The Bridge and Vitus.

The Bridge, a documentary by Eric Steel, is met with controversy everywhere it goes. No doubt its subject matter has something to do with it—Steel and his crew filmed over 10,000 hours of footage from a wide angle lens, capturing 23 of the reported 24 suicide jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004. Even more controversial, however, are the methods Steel used to gather his material: He told bridge officials he was shooting a film about national landmarks, and when he conducted interviews with the family and friends of the deceased, he deliberately didn’t inform them that he had taped footage of their loved ones’ deaths.

Steel defended his methods before the West Coast premiere of his film, saying that he wanted to avoid the possibility of anybody seeing his project as “an opportunity to end their life and have it immortalized on film.” Upon viewing the film, it’s easy to see why Steel wanted to preserve the purity of his footage. The first scene of the film depicts everyday pedestrians and tourists on the bridge. Many stop and look down in wonder. Knowing what the film is about, some audience members may experience a perverse urge to guess which one the jumper is, and their curiosity is satisfied just a few seconds later, as a heavyset man climbs over the railing and leaps to his death.

At first glance, what makes The Bridge so compelling is the realization that each jumper has his own style: Some only look down for a few seconds before leaping over the guardrail, while others, like Gene Sprague, stalk up and down the length of the bridge, breathing in the salty ocean air before taking their languid swan dive into the Bay. The differences in jumps are what make this film so harrowing—without Steel’s footage, the 24 deaths would remain mere statistics instead of taking on human characteristics. Quickly, the initial morbid fascination gives way to a plethora of questions that strike at the heart of social responsibility, as the viewer is forced to consider every factor that could have led to such a monumental decision in each jumper’s mind.

The film uses interviews with family and friends to construct a living profile of the jumpers. Some are resigned and have been for years. Others are resentful or remorseful. All believe their loved ones are in a better place. But for all their recollections, they can never really tell the victims’ own stories—the recorded jumps are the only visible conclusions to these tragedies, one which says that even though the descent from the bridge lasts only a few seconds, the actual fall has been going on for so long that those last few moments must feel like a lifetime of relief.

Kevin Hines, a young San Francisco native, is one of the only survivors of the jump, which usually kills on impact. His suicide attempt was in 2000, four years before The Bridge was conceived. Hines supplies the only true narration of the film—his thought process on the morning of his jump and what he felt as he was hurtling toward the water. What made him choose the bridge? As Hines describes in an interview with Good Morning America, “It’s this simple. A four-foot rail. A tall 12-year-old could fall off.”

Steel was inspired to make The Bridge after reading a New Yorker piece by Tad Friend that described “the fatal grandeur” of the landmark (, citing its adjacent footpath as an easy way to guarantee success when jumping. It is this accessibility that lures dozens of jumpers to the Golden Gate Bridge every year, making it the number one suicide destination in the world. And although the film never explicitly addresses the issue of civic responsibility, the question that goes begging was too strong, too direct for bridge officials to ignore. In the same week Steel’s film debuted at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District decided to launch a $2 million study of the possibility of erecting a suicide barrier for the bridge.

Whether Steel meant for his film about “the human spirit in crisis” to achieve social change is debatable, but many suicide prevention professionals have lauded him for bringing what many consider to be the last social taboo to the limelight. Suicide has generally been a private act, committed behind locked doors, but The Bridge manages to capture the few who have taken the act to the public sphere, forcing not only their family and friends, but also everybody on the bridge, and everybody who watches the film, to come to terms with the aftereffects of their personal agony.

The Bridge will be screened at the Chicago International Film Festival on Saturday, October 7 at 3 p.m., Sunday, October 8 at 12:30 p.m., and Monday, October 9 at 6:45 p.m. All screenings will take place at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema.

Also featured this weekend at the festival is Vitus (directed by Fredi M. Murer), a majestic, heartwarming feature about a young, multitalented prodigy who fakes a terrible accident in order to reclaim his childhood.

The title character has an exceptional musical ear as well as an affinity for numbers. After he dazzles important party guests with a cheeky Schumann piece at a dinner party, his parents are overjoyed; they start to invest all of their hopes in their six-year-old wunderkind.

Six years later: Vitus (now played by young piano maestro Teo Gheorghiu) is a full-blown prodigy who antagonizes his schoolmates and instructors with apparent enthusiasm but is clearly uncomfortable with being so ostracized by his peers. He goes to his grandfather (a serene Bruno Ganz) for advice. His grandfather asks, “What do you want to be?”

“I want to be someone else.”

In true innovative style, Vitus chooses to fake a leap from his bedroom balcony in order to “lose” his talent and go back to being a regular boy. With this return to normality, however, their family’s fortunes seem to take a turn as well, forcing Vitus to use his hidden genius to save the day in improbable but utterly enchanting ways.

Gheorghiu is already impressive in real life; he was born in Switzerland, speaks five languages, and has played the piano since he was nine years old. It’s no wonder that the role of Vitus comes so naturally to him; he completely embodies his character, drawing out varying degrees of petulance, intensity, and vitality to great effect. His Vitus is filled with tremendous potential and grand ideas to go along with his talent, but he’s not perfect. In one unforgettable scene, he tries to propose (yes, marriage) to his former babysitter, citing scientific facts about the female libido and male death statistics to justify his entreaty. It’s a precious scene because her reply shows both the audience and Vitus himself that he is still a child, and that it’s okay to wait a few years before truly growing up.

The film features many scenes that display Gheorghiu’s obvious talent, but none quite as powerful as the very last scene, which sits him in front of a full orchestra in a packed concert hall. The emotion and the triumph of his final performance speaks for itself as Gheorghiu’s small, bespectacled frame exudes enough gravity to leave the audience—both in the film and in the theater—breathless.

Vitus will be screened at the Chicago International Film Festival on Saturday, October 7 at 2:30 p.m. (at AMC River East), Sunday, October 8 at 3:30 p.m., and Monday, October 9 at 4:15 p.m. The Sunday and Monday showings will be screened at Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema.