Frozen in time: the miraculous gold rush movies buried under the Yukon ice


By Christina Newland
The Guardian, London
Friday, July 28, 2017

In 1978 in northwest Canada’s Yukon territory, construction on a new recreation centre was under way in a small rural settlement called Dawson City.

As bulldozers tore up the ground where the previous sports hall had stood, a remarkable discovery came to light: hundreds of reels of ancient nitrate film. Some 533 silent films were recovered, including newsreels and features of all types, dating from the 1910s and '20s. Most were previously unknown to film scholars or thought to be totally lost. But for 49 years the inhospitable cold of the Yukon landscape had safely protected the films -- which had been found at the bottom of an old swimming pool.

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Filmmaker Bill Morrison has pieced together some of these cinematic relics into a sprawling, hypnotic rumination on a long-forgotten past, called "Dawson City: Frozen Time." Morrison, whose previous work includes the acclaimed found-footage essay "Decasia," explains the route the footage took from building site to the Canadian national archives in Ottawa -- transported by a Hercules military aircraft after civilian courier firms refused to deliver what they considered dangerously flammable material.

Morrison says he first heard about the footage as an art student in the 1980s. "It became a story that archivists told -- a wonderful almost-folktale. But it was all word of mouth. There was only one article written about it in the mid-'80s," he says. “Now most people my age or younger have never heard of it. So I do think cultural memory has a shelf life of eight to 10 years and then people forget."

"Dawson City: Frozen Time" makes a gargantuan effort to reinvigorate that memory, giving us a vivid account of the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and tracing the changing geography of Dawson City during its most colourful years. It achieves this largely through footage from these lost reels of nitrate, but uses still photographs and other archival material to further illustrate the period.
Morrison's film incorporates another lost-and-found tale: a collection of astoundingly evocative photographs taken locally in the late 19th century by a man named Eric Hegg. Hegg left 200 glass-plate negatives, deemed valueless, as insulation in the walls of his Dawson City photography studio. They were only rediscovered in the 1950s. ...

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