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By Marion Hewitt on

Dawson City: Frozen Time—Cinematic Gold

Director of the North West Film Archive, Marion Hewitt, gets excited about discovery and decay.

I am seriously excited that Dawson City is coming to Manchester! Bill Morrison’s film, which I saw at its UK premiere at the London Film Festival in 2016, is totally absorbing in its narrative, and breathtaking in the beauty of the images and the score. What better way to celebrate UNESCO World Day for Audio Visual Heritage than this very special screening at HOME, as part of the Manchester Science Festival, and with the participation of the filmmaker himself in the post-screening panel.

I first came across the story of the Dawson City find in Sam Kula’s chapter in FIAF’s splendid 2002 publication This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film. But it wasn’t until 2006 that I heard the incredible details from the horse’s mouth, at an airport lunch counter, passing the time between flights with two legends of the film archiving world, Sam Kula and Ray Edmondson.

We had been attending the conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists in Anchorage, Alaska and my jaw dropped to hear Sam’s first-hand account of the extraordinary circumstances of the discovery and preservation of over 500 reels of 35mm nitrate film from Dawson City in 1978.

Dawson City is a Gold Rush town in Canada, on the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, within 165 miles of the Arctic Circle. Booming in the 1910s, its population of some 30,000 people was enjoying regular film screenings, even though the films were months (even years) old before they found their way to this remote place at the far end of the distribution chain.

As a consequence of the distance, and the fact that that the distributors didn’t want to pay for the return shipping of ‘worthless’ prints, the reels were left in the care of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and simply piled up in the basement of the Carnegie Library—which by a happy chance provided pretty much ideal cold and stable conditions for the storage of unstable nitrate film.

When there was no more space, the films were close to being destroyed either by burning or dumping in the river—luckily the treasurer of the hockey association had a better idea. In 1929, he used boxes containing 1,500 reels of film to prop up the town’s sagging ice rink, which had been built over the swimming pool, filling the spaces around it with earth. There they remained, despite the building burning down, until 1978 when the site was undergoing excavation for a new recreation centre for the remaining 1,000 population.

Enter Sam Kula—Director of Canada’s National Film, TV and Sound Archives in Ottawa. Welcomed by the local heritage agencies, Sam took the recovery and conservation process into his very safe hands. With the intervention of the Canadian Air Force to move nearly a ton of nitrate film (classified quite correctly as a hazardous substance) to Ottawa, work began on the inventory, identification, and painstaking preservation of this rich vein of cinematic gold!

And now, enter filmmaker Bill Morrison… Bill finds beauty in the decay, and brings us unearthly glimpses of a fragile past. Dawson City: Frozen Time is a magical tale, combining the enthralling story of the discovery, with the ghosts and shadows rescued from the permafrost.

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