Director Bill Morrison reflects on his first encounters with the once lost Dawson City Film Find—a trove of silent-era films discovered in 1978 buried beneath a swimming pool in the town at the center of the Klondike Gold Rush—and how the collection was shaped into a more expansive tale of the American Experience in his latest film, Dawson City: Frozen Time.
A central hypothesis to my work is that film is—quite literally—Social Memory. When we lose filmic record, we lose the memory that these things occurred. An enormous amount of film was shot throughout the 20th century. We are destined to lose most of it, and it will be quickly forgotten. There is a scene in Dawson City: Frozen Time where a newspaper account from 1939 reports that “it appears that the former swimming tank had been used in the distant past as a depository for discarded movie film.” At that time, the films had only been buried 10 years, yet they had been forgotten, until they began to leech out of the ground after a fire destroyed the building sitting above them. In a way, I feel that is what has happened to this collection again, with this film.
When I first heard of this story as an art student in the late 1980s, it was a story that was in circulation among people interested in film. Now, 30 years later, I find that literally no one who is younger than me has ever heard of this story, and most of the people who have are older film people, with some connection to archival film or to Dawson City. There was no book or movie about the collection, and a collective amnesia was taking the story away from us. As physical embodiments of social memory, and like the bits of nitrate described in the film, pushing its way through the ice, where children lit it on fire, film has this power to resurface and allow itself to be reexamined and recontextualized.
At 6:10 am on May 13, 2012 a Canadian film programmer named Paul Gordon wrote me to inquire about screening my films at the Lost Dominion Screening Collective in Ottawa. He went on to say: “I also happen to be a Motion Picture Conservator for Library and Archives Canada. If you ever wanted to come up here and look for films, or maybe even work at our facilities, maybe we can make it happen. We still run a black and white lab, optical and contact printers.”
I wrote Paul back asking if they didn’t house the Dawson City material at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and he said they did. I first visited Ottawa to screen my films in March 2013, and I spent a couple days across the river in Gatineau, Quebec, where Paul worked at the Preservation Centre. He mentioned that they were planning to install a new 4K digital scanner that winter, which meant that I would eventually be able to order master material from the library.
He also showed me many related clips and documents that were housed at LAC. Unlike almost any other archaeological discovery, the Dawson City Film Find is blessed with a first-person account by the man who actually buried the films in the swimming pool. CBC Bank manager Clifford Thomson’s letter to the Klondike Korner on August 15, 1978 outlines what happened to the films once they reached Dawson and how they came to be buried in the swimming pool. In part, this became my script, from which I expanded to include the origin of cinema, the Gold Rush, and the rapid rise and long decline of Dawson throughout the 20th century.
I set out to tell the story of how these films came to be buried and re-discovered in Dawson City. But in so doing I quickly saw this peculiar tale as a synopsis of the American Experience in fast forward: the displacement of the indigenous people carried out on the dream of the individual striking it rich on his own, which gave way to the corporatization and mechanized harvesting of resources, and the exploitation of the workers and destruction of the environment, which eventually killed the town off, all within a couple generations. Which is why the inclusion of the Trump story is not only timely, but incredibly compelling. It was on the dreams of the Gold Rush stampeders that the current US corporate autocracy was built.
Cinema is capitalism, which brings with it, on a razor’s edge, both dreams and death. This is, in a nutshell, what the film is about. There is a line near the beginning of the film: “Film was born of an explosive.” It speaks to the actual military origins of nitrate film. Military might is both the manifestation of capitalism and the cogs that keep it running—a self-consuming death machine. Cinema is the entertainment division of that empire, colonizing capitalistic society the world over, which is central to this story in particular. Silver (nitrate) follows gold to the far corners of the earth, wherever it may be found. In Dawson, silver was literally buried in the same earth from which the gold was pulled—once the gold was gone, the silver died. I think it is why the story has resonance beyond simply being a story about lost films found. It is a story of the 20th century and the forces that were at play in shaping the world we live in today, and that were starkly played out in black and white in Dawson City. It is Western expansionism and the rise and fall of capitalism as seen through the movies.
Ultimately I feel the film speaks to the ephemeral nature of our cultural and personal memories. So much of our film history has been lost, and will continue to be lost. That is the nature of film. By using these old, rare films, I am not just referencing what was photographed in the frame, but also the very reels themselves that were carried through time against all odds to reach us at the moment of projection. I think that is a powerful idea, one that resonates with people as we are reminded of everything we have forgotten, lost, or never knew.