‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ at Loew Auditorium tonight

Directed by Bill Morrison, the documentary delves into the rich history of a forgotten town.

by Savannah Miller | 10/20/17 12:15am

Tonight the Hopkins Center for the Arts will show “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” a documentary about a Canadian town in the Yukon region that became a hotspot during the Klondike Gold Rush. Additionally, Dawson City rose to fame within the film industry in 1978 when old prints and reels were discovered. Directed by Bill Morrison, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” delves into the rich history of this forgotten town.

The documentary recalls the origins of the Canadian town. Before the late 19th century, indigenous peoples lived on the land now called Dawson City, using the space for cultivating crops, fishing and hunting moose. However, between 1896 and 1898, Dawson City became the center of the gold rush, and the indigenous population was pushed out to make room for over 40,000 panhandlers seeking fortune. When the rush ended, the influx of newcomers ended too. The residents fled, and Dawson City experienced a population reduction to 1,000 by the 1940s. An accidental discovery by a construction crew in 1978 put the small town back on the map, after a different kind of gold mine was discovered.

About 500 nitrate films were found hidden in a swimming pool in Dawson City, preserved by the permafrost characteristic of the Yukon. The films are all silent films or newsreels forgotten or considered lost, and the documentary draws from these reels for the bulk of the piece. The found footage is pieced together and supplemented by interviews, historical footage and photographs from the city, combining to make a statement about history and the art it leaves behind. Alex Somers created the score, an artist most known for his work as a co-producer, mixer and sound engineer with Sigur Rós.

Tonight’s event will feature a post-show discussion with film studies professor Mark Williams and Morrison, the director of the piece, who previously screened his film “The Great Flood” on campus in 2013.

“It made so much sense to bring [Morrison] to campus this term,” Williams said. “He’s such a gifted filmmaker and so expressive in ways that we don’t always remember are ways to be expressive that its perfect for my ‘Introduction to Film’ course.”

Williams became familiar with Morrison through the Media Ecology Project, a program dedicated to preserving public memory in the form of historical films, and the Orphan Film Symposium, a project organized by New York University professor Dan Streible, Williams said. Williams and Sydney Stowe, acting director of film at the Hop, are both extremely excited to have the director back on campus.

“We are very excited to host production designer, filmmaker and archivist [Morrison] here this weekend,” Stowe said. “[Morrison] has been a guest of the Hopkins Center several times over the years with his earlier film and with acclaimed musicians like the Kronos Quartet.”

According to Stowe, students will also have the opportunity to participate in a master class with Morrison today at 11:30 a.m. The master class has open sign-ups, offers lunch and the opportunity for students to interact with and as questions of the guest director, film and media studies department administrator Cheryl Coutermarsh said in an email.

Morrison shared his excitement about showcasing a piece to students about a town he believes represents America and her plights with industrialization in the 20th century.

“As the indigenous people were pushed out, the workers came in, and then they got pushed out by corporations with mechanized ways of harvesting gold,” Morrison said. “It became a factory town, and that was sort of the fall of it.”

While exploring the found footage of Dawson City, Morrison said he found many clips from newsreels people did not know existed, including footage from the controversial “Black Sox” World Series in 1919, coverage of the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914 and scenes of minor workers protesting the conditions imposed on them by John D. Rockefeller, the chief owner.

“[The Dawson City collection] is a very concrete history,” Morrison said. “[Students] will have their minds blown. It’s an incredible film.”

He also cited the film’s return to the earlier days of cinema as a major appeal of the piece.

“It’s mostly told with titles in the silent film tradition,” Morrison said. “I think it’s almost trance-inducing.”

Williams believes “Dawson City” is a movie from which students and viewers can learn about film history.

“Everyone can learn about the fragility of cultural production and what’s so powerful about remembering the past,” he said. “A lot of people can’t imagine film history as anything but ubiquitous and eternal, and both of those things are wrong.”

As director of the Media Ecology Project at Dartmouth, Williams aims to connect film archives and expand them with moving images related to the history of filmography and orphan films, movies or reels that have faded from cultural relevancy or awareness. Often, their owners are either unknown or so untraceable that the film is under no copyright. He hopes students will garner a new appreciation for these kinds of films after viewing “Dawson City.”

“These are fundamental documents of public memory, and we argue with them,” Williams said. “We should question public memory. That should be part of what makes us human beings.”

Morrison said because the piece includes a comprehensive history of these “documents” and the town that hid them, it offers an experience unavailable anywhere else.

“It tells this patchwork of a story of the 20th century in film clips,” Morrison said. “You’re not going to see anything like it anywhere else.”

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” is playing in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center tonight at 7 p.m.