Unearthing cinema's past in Dawson City

In Dawson City: Frozen Time, director Bill Morrison pieces together the bizarre true history of a long-lost collection of 533 nitrate film prints from the early 1900s. Discovered buried under the permafrost in a former Canadian Gold Rush town, their story conjures the forgotten ties between the fledgling film industry and Manifest Destiny in North America.

Located about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Dawson City was settled in 1896—the same year large-scale cinema projectors were invented—and became the centre of the Klondike Gold Rush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area. Soon after, the city became the final stop for a distribution chain that sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon. The films were seldom, if ever, returned.

By the late 1920s, over 500,000 feet of film had accumulated in the basement of the local library. Much of it was eventually moved to the town’s hockey rink, where it was stacked and covered with boards and a layer of earth. The now-famous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a new recreation centre was being built and a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans.

Sean Parnell writes about the experience of watching the film below. Watch the trailer now:

Bill Morrison’s archive footage film Dawson City: Frozen Time is a history of many things and a visual feast for any lover of the dawn of cinema. This unique documentary’s premise lies in its detail: scarred and damaged old film stock of people and places forgotten by time, found by a twist of fate and given new life. Morrison’s archive film is a meditation on the isolated Yukon city of Dawson, a place that was the end of the line, but also one that the world decided to pass through. Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution (the return journey for any film prints that made their way there was too expensive), and so it eventually became the burial site for a small but important part of cinema history, a part which was all but forgotten. Until now. Noteworthy characters grace Dawson City's heritage, notorious stories dot its forgotten past. Through revisiting the archive of footage that was once screened for the city's residents in its parlours and theatres, the world of yesterday and all its past events are revealed.

First Avenue, Dawson, 1898 - Courtesy of Vancouver Public Library; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

Morrison’s history as a filmmaker has always focused on the production of archival films and artwork based on historical events and places that are often at the periphery of memory. Described as a ‘film archaeologist’, one of the common traits in all of his films is the regeneration of the moving images of early cinema. Much of Dawson City: Frozen Time focuses on the importance of early cinema to both the town of Dawson, but also to the preservation, through the medium of cinema, of a place and period of time that might have otherwise been forgotten. Whilst there is something important in the preservation and remembering of these images and all the stories they contain for posterity, there is also a wonderful exploration of mundane beauty, the simple lives of these pioneers that pass in front of the camera and the struggles and triumphs they faced as individuals and as a community.  

DAAA Theater baseball team,  Courtesy Dawson Museum; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

The pioneering experience of Dawson City acts as a primary theme for the film and includes a surprising array of well-known names such as one Frederick Trump (yes, related to that Trump). However, whilst these individuals and stories constitute the films main ideas, it’s the aesthetics of the film that provide some of the most stimulating and visceral moments. The burns and degradation of the celluloid film create unique framing of scenes and people, and contribute to and enhance the nature of the archival documentary experience. These moments of damage, which are relished by Morrison, penetrate the historical references and themes of the film and move it beyond simple documentation and into the realm of artful abstraction.

“Washing Gold on 20 Above Hunker” (1901), dir. Robert K. Bonine, Edison - Courtesy Library of Congress; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

“Washing Gold on 20 Above Hunker” (1901), dir. Robert K. Bonine, Edison - Courtesy Library of Congress; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

Another consistent aspect of Morrison’s work is that his films are often accompanied by an originally produced score, created specifically for the film. Through this tandem offering, a reinvigorated approach to meaning within the archival footage emerges and the music works in partnership with the carefully constructed edit to create new emotion and meaning. Visual artist and musician Alex Somers, who has created music for films such as Captain Fantastic and worked with artists including Sigur Rós, scores Morrison's film with a dreamy lucid resonance that at once complements the meditation on themes, and matches the fragmentary montage of the archive effect. The considered and thoughtful approach to both audio and visual elements ultimately provides a wonderfully contemplative and immersive experience for the viewer.

Finding films buried underground in Dawson City - Copyright Kathy Jones-Gates; courtesy Kathy Jones-Gates; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

Finding films buried underground in Dawson City - Copyright Kathy Jones-Gates; courtesy Kathy Jones-Gates; Hypnotic Pictures; Picture Palace Pictures

It is difficult to ignore the luck that has fallen upon the survival of this footage and that same luck that has made it possible for this film to exist. By mere chance the flammable nitrate film reels survived highly possible fire, and they also survived being discarded out of neglect and burial in the Dawson City ground. Like moments forgotten in time, the footage that Morrison has assembled demonstrates how delicate the preservation of memory can be. For all the interest in the history of Dawson and its people, one universal truth shines through: the capturing and survival (by chance) of these images is symbolic of our appreciation of the cinematic art form which seems to contribute to our lives immeasurably.

[Sean Parnell, Curzon Bloomsbury manager]

Dawson City: Frozen Time had a rare cinema screening plus Q&A with director Bill Morrison at Curzon Soho as part of DocDays on Wednesday 25 October. 

The Q&A was followed by the international premiere of Bill Morrison's latest short film Dawson City: Postscript.

Watch an interview with the director here.