After bulldozers uncovered reels of long-buried silent films on a Canadian building site, painstaking restoration has delivered a fascinating glimpse of boom time in Dawson City – and the artistic delights to be found there
In 1978, in north-west 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.
Film-maker 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.”