Doctober at Pickford – “Dawson City”

By Monique Merrill

Ever wondered what the rise and fall of the Gold Rush has in common with the history of silent film?  The Pickford Film Center is screening a documentary, as part of their Doctober series, that takes you back a century into a Klondike town and explains just that, while also exploring the world as it was at the time.

I went to see “Dawson City: Frozen Time,” on Saturday.  This documentary presents a collage of found footage of nitrate film reels dug up in the 1970s, that had previously thought to be lost. Nitrate film is a highly flammable material that is responsible for many of the abundant fires that ravaged Dawson City’s theatres and led to the loss of many films.

Dawson City was a hub during the Alaskan-Yukon Gold Rush that had a massive population that quickly dwindled after the turn of the century as miners and prospectors found their jobs drying up when industrialized mining took over.

Due to the Yukon’s distance from the film production sites, they often received films much later than their release and the distributors requested the films be stored in Dawson City and later destroyed rather than face the hassle of sending them back. Tons, literal tons, of films were dumped into the Yukon River, others were burned, and the remainder were used to fill an old swimming pool to create an ice rink in a recreation hall. This unique set of circumstances, particularly the nitrate film being frozen for so long and therefore less likely to combust, led to the preservation of over 300 silent films.

“Dawson City” pieces together the history of the Klondike town through these old reels while also contextualizing the films and their importance in cinema. It covers everything from the rise and fall of Dawson City, a devastating amount of fires, and even includes a brief portion on the 1919 Baseball World Series scandal. It also strays from what one might consider to be a typical documentary format. Rather than narration over the film, the documentary is introduced and concluded with interviews from those who uncovered the films and then show a collection of film and photographs with text on the screen to explain the context.

For those interested in history, film, or even baseball, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is the movie for you. Even if you’re not interested in any of those things I think this movie is compelling enough to captivate any audience member. “Dawson City” is playing at the Pickford all week.

 

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