Freeze frame: Film uses century-old footage dug up from within Yukon permafrost

Hundreds of film reels were tossed into a pit and buried a century ago in Dawson City. Bill Morrison's new film tells the story of that lost footage and their discovery.

Filmmaker's new doc tells story of buried film reels from end of Klondike Gold Rush era

More than 500 reels of film from the Dawson City cinema were buried in the 1920s, and re-discovered 50 years later. (Kathy Jones-Gates)

New York filmmaker Bill Morrison says the existence of his new film is nothing less than a miracle.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a feature-length documentary whose raw material was literally dug up from within the permafrost, dusted off, and assembled — like a museum's wooly mammoth skeleton — to tell a story about lost time.

Morrison is relieved to be finished his film, calling it an 'enormous project.' (Picture Palace Pictures)

It's been a century in the making, and next week the film will receive its North American premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.

"It's such a singular story," Morrison said.

It starts in the 1920s, when the fading, gold-rush town was the end of the road for movies and newsreels sent from down south to screen at Dawson's cinema.

Hundreds of film reels — silent films, travelogues — were never sent back south, and so were simply burned or tossed into the Yukon River for years after the end of the gold rush.

A large collection of the reels was also used as fill in an old swimming pool that became a hockey rink. That's the footage that was discovered by work crews in 1978 after being sealed in permafrost and preserved for 50 years. And that's what Morrison used for his documentary.

The films had been used as fill in the town's old swimming pool, which later became a hockey rink. (Dawson City Museum/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures)

"They became an inadvertent preservation project," he said.

"They're the only copies that exist of any of these films anywhere. All the other copies everywhere else were burned up, or were thrown away.

"It's really quite a miracle."

150 kilometres of film

In all, there are 533 film reels, with 150 kilometres of film and 106 hours of footage. They're now housed at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa, and the U.S. Library of Congress.

Morrison's documentary uses the restored films to trace the story of Dawson City, the First Nations people who hunted and fished in the area, the mining boomtown that displaced them in the late 1890s, ("an invasive culture that was woefully misplaced in its new environment and even more woefully unaware of its trespasses," according to Morrison), and the town's post-gold-rush evolution.

There are about 160 hours of rare footage on the salvaged films. They have been restored and are now housed at the Canadian Archives in Ottawa, and the U.S. Library of Congress. (Submitted by Kathy Jones-Gates)

"To tease out the themes that were already suggested in the story and the newsreels and narratives that were found in the swimming pool — it was an enormous project," Morrison said.

"The transformation of the land in Dawson City corresponded to the transformation of cinema throughout the world, and so we make a very close correlation between cinema history and Dawson City history."

The first motion picture was made in 1895. A year later, Dawson City was founded.

'We had tears in our eyes'

Morrison eagerly gives ample credit for his film to two Yukon historians, Michael and Kathy Gates. They helped salvage the films from the dirt back in 1978.

They also helped Morrison get a handle on the wealth of material.

Michael and Kathy Jones-Gates were both involved in the discovery of the films. They married the following year. (CBC)

"None of us would know about this project if it wasn't for them — it was their seeing what was there, and that it was important, and that it needed to be saved, and there was an opportunity to save it."

The Gates' will join Morrison at the New York premiere, though they've already seen the film. They couldn't be happier or more amazed with the result.

"We both had tears in our eyes, we were both 'thumbs up,'" Kathy Gates said.

Kathy's highlight was seeing moving footage from a 1925 travelogue that shows Chief Isaac, the influential Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in leader who died in 1932.

For Michael, it was seeing footage of Front Street in Dawson City, taken in 1898, at the height of the Klondike gold rush.

"When I saw that, it sent shivers down my spine," he said.

A still from footage taken on First Avenue in Dawson City in 1898 at the height of the gold rush. (Vancouver Public Library/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures)

Memory is short

For Morrison, it's a profound relief to be able to finally show the film he's been working on and talking about for years. He's been amazed at how few people remember the story about the film reels' discovery in 1978.

He says when he was a young film student in the 1980s, it was still "resonating through the film world."

"Now, when I talk to even film archivists — people deeply in the world, who happen to be younger than me — none of them have heard of this story."

To Morrison, it's a reminder that memory is short, stories are lost, and history can be repeated.

"For me, you only come across a film story like this once in a lifetime," he wrote in a Director's Statement for the New York Festival.

"It is my Titanic. It is a perfect distillation of the 20th century."

with files from Sandi Coleman


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