As a cinephile, I can imagine there to be no greater joy than discovering old film footage that had previously been thought lost. It has happened before, often in the most incongruous of places. For instance, in 2008, crucial missing scenes from Fritz Lang’s German silent classic, Metropolis (1927), were found 80 years after its release in the archive of an Argentinian museum.
Moreover, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s emotional French-made masterpiece, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), thought only to have survived in truncated form after a fire destroyed the master negative, turned up in original format in the cleaning cupboard of a mental institution in Poland in 1981. Even regarding television, who could forget the discovery two years ago of previously lost Morecambe And Wise tapes in a derelict cinema in Sierra Leone, West Africa?
A very similar joy is realised in Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). This documentary winds the clock back to 1978, deep in Yukon Territory, Canada, where a bulldozer unearths reels upon reels of film footage dating back to the 1910s and 1920s. This collection is composed of items including newsreels, old Hollywood silent films and documentary footage of the town, Dawson City, the place synonymous with the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896-99, a mass exodus of prospecting migrants from their homes to aforementioned Canadian Yukon Territory, and Alaska, after gold was discovered there. (Despite the precarity of the prospectors’ journeys across ice, snow, and rocky terrain, this event is remembered rather humorously in Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), in which he himself stars as an ill-fated prospector).
Dawson City is equally known as the final stop of a distribution chain which sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon, and which, from that point, were too expensive to return and were, consequently, dumped. The director of the film, Chicago-born Bill Morrison, is a proclaimed ‘film archaeologist’ whose prior acclaimed filmography, in a similar vein, sees the combining of rare archival material, usually with contemporary music.
It is true that much of the film footage in Dawson City: Frozen Time contains burns and other imperfections. I use this term loosely as they do not sully the viewing experience but, rather, add to its beauty. After all, it’s a minor miracle that the original film material, notoriously flammable nitrate, had not combusted completely over time. As much of a tribute to cinema, this film is a tribute to the life and times of the forgotten people of Dawson City, and, significantly, a tribute to the preservation of memory.
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