picture palace pictures
DAWSON CITY:FROZEN TIME

A FILM BY BILL MORRISON

A Production of Hypnotic Pictures and  Picture Palace Pictures
in association with La Lucarne/ARTE and the Museum of Modern Art, New York


Produced by Bill Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux (U.S)

Original score by Alex Somers


Title Design: Galen Johnson
Sound Design: John Somers
Associate Producer: Paul Gordon (Canada)



all photos courtesy Hypnotic Pictures, Canadian Archives, U.S. Library of Congress.

Newsreel still: Washing Gold on 20 Above Hunker, Klondike (1901)

Dawson City: Frozen Time
, a feature length film by Bill Morrison (U.S.)  pieces together the bizarre true history of a collection of some 500 films dating from 1910s - 1920s, which were lost for over 50 years until being discovered buried in a sub-arctic swimming pool deep in the Yukon Territory.

 

Using archival footage to tell the story, and accompanied by an originally composed score by Alex Somers (Captain Fantastic), Dawson City: Frozen Time will depict a unique history of a Canadian gold rush town by chronicling the life cycle of a singular film collection through its exile, burial, rediscovery, and salvation – and through that collection, how a First Nation hunting camp was transformed and displaced.

 

Dawson City, located about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is situated at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers and rests on a bed of permafrost. Historically, the area was an important hunting and fishing camp for a nomadic First Nation tribe known as Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. The town was settled in 1896—the same year large scale cinema projectors were invented—and it became the center of the Klondike Goldrush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area. The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) opened in 1902 and began showing films and soon, 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, 500,000 feet of film --500 films-- had accumulated in the basement of the local Library, under the care of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In 1929, Clifford Thomson, bank employee and treasurer of the local hockey association, moved the films to the town’s hockey rink, stacked and covered them with boards and a layer of earth. The now famous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a new recreation center was being built and a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans.

 

The films are now housed in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and at the US Library of Congress, which jointly restored all the titles to 35mm preservation masters.

Packers on the trail, 1901

Extended Project Description

Using archival footage to tell the story, Dawson City: Frozen Time pieces together the bizarre true history of a collection of some 500 films dating from 1910s - 1920s, which were lost for over 50 years until being discovered buried in a sub-arctic swimming pool deep in the Yukon Territory in 1978.

The film depicts a unique history of this gold rush town by chronicling the life cycle of a singular film collection through its exile, burial, rediscovery, and salvation, and through that collection, how a First Nation hunting camp was transformed into a gold mining town, and then a vault of memories from the culture that displaced it. Dawson City, located about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is situated at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers and rests on a bed of permafrost. Historically, the area was an important hunting and fishing camp for a nomadic First Nation tribe known as Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. The town was settled in 1896 upon the discovery of gold in its creeks, and it became the center of the Klondike Goldrush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area that year--the same year the world was introduced to commercial cinema with the advent of new large-scale projectors, and the “movie theater”.

 

The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) opened in 1902 and began showing films in 1903. Dawson City became the final stop for a film distribution chain that sent many film prints and newsreels to the Yukon, often many months, if not years, after they premiered. The films were seldom, if ever, returned. Instead, they accumulated in Dawson, where they were deposited in the care of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library.In addition to a theater, the DAAA complex also included a boxing ring, a gymnasium, and next door, a hockey rink with a one of the Yukon’s few swimming pools in the middle of it. In order to convert the rink to ice, boards were laid on top of the pool and then iced over. But because of the discrepancy in temperature, the ice would never freeze evenly and the games suffered from the uneven surface in the middle of the rink.

 

By the late 1920s, 500,000 feet of film had accumulated in the Carnegie library basement. Clifford Thomson, an employee of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, also served as treasurer of the hockey association. In 1929, Thomson solved two nagging civic problems when he removed the 500 films from the library basement, stacked them in the pool, covered them with boards, and then a layer of earth on top of that to provide a level surface for the hockey rink. Films continued to be shipped to Dawson City, and in 1951, a fire fueled by new nitrate films that were being stored at the DAAA, burned the entire complex to the ground. The only films that were spared were those early ones buried in the permafrost below the hockey rink.

The now famous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a new recreation center was being built and a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans. Clifford Thomson read a newspaper item describing the find and told the historical society about the size of the collection buried there. The films are now housed in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and at the US Library of Congress, which jointly restored all the titles to 35mm preservation masters. The titles almost certainly fared better than any of the other prints of their time. As nitrate filmstock is given to self-destruction, these prints became some of the last surviving records of titles from studios such as Essanay, Rex, Thanhouser, and Selig.



              still from The Darkening Trail

Director’s Statement/Notes on Dawson City: Frozen Time

 

The story of the Dawson City film collection is a story that combines many contradictions specific to the 20th century. It is a story full of bitter ironies, where the promise of one thing often delivers just the opposite: First nation people had used the encampment at Tr'ochëk for hunting and fishing for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. The Gold Rush brought change overnight. Tr'ochëk was renamed Dawson City in 1897, and boomed to a population of 40,000. The discovery of Gold promised quick and easy riches, yet spurred a hugely expensive, and physically demanding migration by the hopeful. Most of them arrived after all the mines had been already claimed. The prospectors then followed the gold strikes to Alaska, leaving Dawson City as a depleted and disillusioned town only a few years after gold was first discovered there. But as the prospectors left, motion pictures arrived. Not only did films finds their way to Dawson, Cinema took the North Woods as its subject matter, portraying this new landscape and its wilderness stories as one of its favorite, if most wildly romanticized, genres.

 The films that arrived were not returned to their distributors. Instead they were stored in a library, before being disposed of in a defunct swimming pool, ultimately returning the gold, and the silver that followed it, back to the same earth that yielded it. Despite this, subsequent shipments of nitrate films caused the fire that destroyed the theater decades later. Just as gold was the town’s making and undoing, film fueled both the theater’s creation and destruction. Ironically the only films that survived were those early ones that were buried in a subarctic swimming pool and then discovered 50 years later. Those films told the stories of an invasive culture that was woefully misplaced in its new environment, and even more woefully unaware of its trespasses. It is a story that will be told, as much as is possible, using these same films from the collection. It is both a cinema of mythology, and mythologizing of cinema. Gold and Silver, forever linked and following one another, drove the narrative in a unique chapter of human civilization.

 The story of the Dawson City film collection is well-known among film archivists, even if there remains little written about it outside of an article by Sam Kula, the director of Canada’s Audiovisual Archives, that was first published in American Film in July 1979. I first became aware of it in the early 1990s when I began to draw on archival material exclusively to tell stories in my own films. In my past work, especially in the short “The Film of Her” (1996), and later, with the feature length film “Decasia” (2002), archival film became central to both the form and content of the film. The former used archival film to tell the story of an ancient film collection. The latter used decaying archival film as a metaphor for mortality.

 

“Dawson City – Frozen Time” shares some of the same approaches and aesthetics of these two earlier works. The new film has the additional context of being about globalization  - firstly through the discovery of Gold, and by extension, Film, which always followed the money. The films that arrived in Dawson were not returned to their distributors. Nor were they watched again. Instead they were stored in a library, before being disposed of in a defunct swimming pool, ultimately returning the gold, and the silver that followed it, back to the same earth that yielded it. Subsequent shipments of nitrate films fueled the fire that destroyed the theater - and most of the film collection that had accumulated there - decades later. The only films that survived were those early ones that were buried in the pool, and then discovered 50 years later.

The films are now housed in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and at the US Library of Congress, which jointly restored all the titles to 35mm preservation masters. The titles almost certainly fared better than any of the other prints of their time. As nitrate filmstock is given to self-destruction, these prints became some of the last surviving records of titles from studios such as Essanay, Rex, Thanhouser, and Selig.

I am currently working closely with Paul Gordon and his team at the Canadian Archives in Ottawa to digitize this footage at the highest resolution possible (4K); this will be combined with the use of period photographs, chronicling the region and Yukon residents, from special library collections.

--Bill Morrison, Hypnotic Pictures, 2014




still from silent film material (circa 1910-1920) discovered in Yukon permafrost, Dawson City, Canada, 1978     

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