In 1896, approximately 100,000 people packed up their belongings and moved to Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon Territory. Gold had been found, and Dawson City served as the center of the Canadian Gold Rush.
Being so far north, Dawson City was the final stop for a distribution chain that was responsible for keeping residents up to date with news happening in other parts of North America, whether in still photography or moving pictures. Often times, the films were never returned.
What’s known now as the Dawson City Collection was rediscovered in 1978 — when a bulldozer working in a parking lot dug out several film cans that were found in an old, buried swimming pool.
Director Bill Morrison accessed the collection of permafrost-protected silent films and newsreels and spliced them together with interviews, historical photos and additional archived footage, which can be seen in his 2016 documentary film, “Dawson City: Frozen Time.”
The film, which will be shown at 2 p.m. on Sunday at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, gives viewers a glimpse of what the films consisted of, as well as what Dawson City was like during the early 1900s.
Tickets to the event are $15, which includes a screening of the film, along with a conversation afterward with Mr. Morrison.
Q: You have quite a history of directing films — I believe I counted 41 documentaries in total that you directed. Is that true?
A: It sounds like you counted them more recently than me. I don’t know. I wouldn’t call them all documentaries. They are image-based films, or image driven. “Dawson City,” I would put squarely in a documentary genre, even though it kind of bends the edges. “The Miners’ Hymns” and “The Great Flood” also depict specific historic times and events. The others are more meditations or what some people might call experimental avant garde.
I try to shy away from any of those categories, and I’m just making the films that interest me. But I am interested in film as a durational art form, which is available for all kinds of expression, not just narrative or documentary expression.
Q: So you’re an artist?
A: I am an artist. Trained as an artist.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: Cooper Union, here in New York.
Q: Why did you choose film as a medium for your art?
A: If you think about it, film is the only art that also uses sight and sound, so, for better or worse, it’s the best model that we’ve come up with. I say “film” loosely here. I mean all moving image media. It’s the best model we’ve come up with for our own experience, our own consciousness. In a way, it’s a full overt expression of what it means to be a being making our way through the world, which includes what you see as well as what you think — your internal monologue versus what you experience.
I think that’s what originally drew me to it. I came out of painting. I quickly understood film as the composite of 24 paintings every second. Then I started thinking about how long someone actually spends looking at a painting, and wanting to control that experience of the viewer’s to be longer and be more involved, and film seemed to be a good way to do that. It was a durational art form.
Many people think of it as a way of telling stories, but they don’t necessarily need to be narrative stories.
Q: How did you come across the material for Dawson City?
A: I’ve been working with archival film for a long time, really since art school. In archival circles, the Dawson City film find was kind of this amazing fun fact. It was well known within that community as this kind of amazing “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” story. The idea that there was a swimming pool in the Yukon already sort of boggles the mind — and there were all these films in it. That sort of captured my attention for decades.
I always thought that I would try to make a film about it, using the contents of it, but it wasn’t until somebody wrote me from Ottawa, where the Library and Archives Canada is, and he simply wanted to program an earlier film of mine, but he mentioned that he worked at the archives there, and I said, “Don’t you have the Dawson City collection there?” He said, “Yeah, we have the whole thing.”
With digital media catching up now, I understood that I could see a digital copy of all of those reels. Where it might have been difficult to make that film when I first heard about that story in the ’80s — late ’80s, early ’90s — now the technology has caught up so that I would actually be able to delve into the collection and tell the story I wanted to tell.
Q: Out of the footage you had, what was your favorite to actually get to see? Was there anything that stuck out — like footage of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal, where the eight players of the Chicago White Sox were banned from baseball for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series?
A: The Europeans didn’t like that part at all. It’s an incredible story, and I wanted to include it, of course, because that footage made a big stir while I was making the film, at least in the baseball community. I found several real gems, but that was the one that generated the most interest, and I wanted to include it.
There were an extraordinary number of things. I liken the film to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. People often describe putting a movie that way, but in this case, it really was, because I have these little discrete pieces of film, and I’m trying to tell a story with them, and there’s holes in the puzzle that I need to leave blank until they can be filled in.
All the photographs were by the great photographer Eric Hague. At some point, he left the Yukon and went off to Alaska, and he left all of these glass plate negatives behind. Eventually, they were found in somebody’s cabin, and they were gifted to a museum in Ottawa.
The story of how that happened and who found them and when was very blurry. I read two different accounts, and everything had been vague. They never mentioned the name of the woman who found them … I couldn’t really include that in my film, because everything else purported to be very specific and accurate. But it was also a very important link, because it was a parallel story to the lost films being found.
I left it in there. I just knew I needed more supporting evidence. I called up Kathy Jones Bates, who you see in the beginning and the end of the film, and asked if she knew anything about it. She said, “Well, there’s an old gal in town, and we often kvetch together about people getting the Yukon history wrong, so let me call her up.” She called up Irene, and Irene was, like, “Well, that was me. I found those photographs.” One phone call, that was solved — we had her name, we had her marriage picture, and then I could find her employer and places of employment. And that really filled this whole segue, which was the link between old Dawson and the modern story.
Q: The music really sets the tone of a movie. What goes into choosing music for a film?
A: I rely heavily on my composer collaborators. They really have a big hand in how the story is told emotionally. I set out what I’m trying to do and then let them come back with something, then I give notes about what’s working and what’s not.
This process with Alex Somers, who worked a lot with Sigur Ros, and I was familiar with his work with that band and with a dual project he did with the front man of Sigur Ros, Jonsi — we were introduced because he liked an earlier film I did called “Decasia.” It was a leap of faith. I really thought that he could do a good job with the story, telling the story musically, and he also brought in his brother John, who did all the sound effect tracks that worked with the music.
Part of the dialogue of telling the composer what you want also means telling yourself what you want. Trying to make decisions about what kind of story the music should be telling, and it made me articulate what this film was really about. At one point, I wrote to him, “This is the tragedy of capitalism. We need more cello.” He got that and came back with this remarkable score.
Q: What do you want to tell people before they go see this movie in Sag Harbor on Sunday?
A: I think if people go in understanding that it is something of a meditation.
They’re going to be reading subtitles for much of the film. There’s been a lot of talk about subtitles this week, with “Parasite” winning the best picture. So, it’s not your normal relationship to an English language film. It almost behaves like a silent film. But I think it eventually works on you to become something of a meditation, or a revelry, and there’s a payoff in the end when you’re awoken from that revelry.
I would just encourage people to have patience going in.