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Filmmaker hopes to find more lost film reels buried in Dawson City

Filmmaker Bill Morrison was in Dawson City this week, and it was a sort of return to the well for him. His acclaimed 2016 documentary was assembled from hundreds of century-old film reels dug out of the permafrost.

Bill Morrison's earlier film, Dawson City: Frozen Time, was assembled from old films long buried in permafrost

About 500 film reels were unearthed in Dawson City in 1978, and became the raw material for Bill Morrison's acclaimed 2016 documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time. Morrison hopes there are more reels waiting to be found. (Submitted by Kathy Jones-Gates)

People have been digging up treasure in Dawson City, Yukon, for decades, and filmmaker Bill Morrison thinks there's a lot more to find.

He's most interested in a very specific sort of treasure, though — rare silent film reels, discarded decades ago as waste.

Morrison was in Dawson City this week, and it was a sort of return to the well for him. His acclaimed 2016 documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time, was assembled from hundreds of century-old film reels dug out of the permafrost in Dawson years earlier.

"With a concerted effort, we're hopeful that maybe a few more reels could still be uncovered," Morrison said.

'I think that any piece of history that you can uncover is important,' said filmmaker Bill Morrison. (Getty Images)

The film reels used for Dawson City: Frozen Time were discovered in 1978 by work crews in Dawson. The reels — silent films, travelogues, and newsreels — dated from the early 20th century, and had been used as fill in an old swimming pool that later became a hockey rink.

The films had first come to Dawson City during and after the Klondike Gold Rush to be screened for locals. The bulky film reels were never sent back south; Dawson was the end of the road. Over time, they reels piled up.

Most of them, deemed worthless, were eventually burned or tossed in the Yukon River — or buried in the old swimming pool.

"Almost all the films that were recovered in 1978 were unique copies and don't exist anywhere else," Morrison said.

He says there's a chance that there are more, in the same spot. The construction project at the time was halted for just a few days while the films were recovered. Morrison thinks some may have been missed.

An undated photo of the old Dawson City swimming pool. The old film reels, once deemed worthless, were used as fill when the swimming pool later became a hockey rink. (Dawson City Museum/Hypnotic Pictures/Picture Palace Pictures)

Michael Gates, a Yukon author and historian was there in 1978, and he and his wife Kathy helped salvage the films and later helped Morrison get a handle on the material. He says it's not clear how deep the excavation went in 1978.

 "[The pool] was seven feet deep. So if they didn't excavate down seven feet, there is every possibility that more films are still to be recovered from that," Gates said.

He also thinks films dumped in the Yukon River could still be found — particularly if they settled in silt along the shore.

"If the films are still in their boxes and they're buried in that silt, there's a good chance that there's still salvageable images," he said.

"We don't know until we know, and we won't know until we've looked more closely."

'Keeping up with the times': A clipping from the Dawson Daily News, July 1932. (Submitted by Michael Gates)

Michael and Kathy Jones-Gates were also in Dawson this week with Morrison, and another filmmaker, to get the "lay of the land." Morrison said it's preliminary work, before planning any sort of detailed exploration that might require permits or licences.

For Morrison, salvaging lost films and giving them new life "does embody sort of the spirit of adventure of the gold rushes.

"I think that any piece of history that you can uncover is important, whether it's a sternwheeler that was buried in the river, or a piece of film. Films have this extraordinary quality of actually containing a piece of moving history."   

 

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