Il Cinema Ritrovato: interview to the director Bill Morrison

Dawson City: a remote city at the confluence of rivers Klondike and Yokon (Canada), that saw condensed in a very short lapse of time the history of the American myth of the gold rush, but also the evolution of cinematographic industry. Dawson City like a miniaturized creature that help us to understand two crucial phenomena of modernity: the foundation, often violent yet relentless, of capitalist society and cinema, as the expression of a modern sentiment, along with all its material and immaterial contradictions.

The documentary directed by Bill Morrison, distributed this year by Cineteca di Bologna and presented at Cinema Ritrovato 2017, opens a range of reflections broadening towards multiple directions: the history of the place is recounted through archival material but most of all through the narrative use of fragments of films that were fortuitously rediscovered precisely in the American small town.

Hundreds of reels, mainly belonging to silent films from the first two decades of 1900, were found in the old public swimming pool of Dawson City, after a string of events: the expansion from indigenous camp to proper city due to the discovery of gold-bearing veins; the coming of a society of entertainment made of cinemas, casinos and brothels too; then the gradual downfall, also studded by a series of tragic fires, largely involving the cinemas in town (nitrate films were highly inflammable).

The documentary Dawson City moves as in a prism through the events that determined the origin of North American civilization. It’s about different stories intertwining themselves through fluid modes, orchestrated by an editing that not always intends to justify its own choices. We find capital’s intrinsic violence (blatant references are made to Trump, Rockefeller, to the deportation of anarchists and trade unionists), but also the visual evocation of the Informal, yet the reflection on the deterioration of the body (human and cinematic ).

It is through an archeological procedure, with the intention to actively involve the spectator, that the director Bill Morrison organizes the material, willing to reproduce and re-order in the sequence of the parts the randomness of a series of objects found digging in the ground.

The director doesn’t imply any sort of rhetoric: it is with the simplicity through which events manifest themselves that we can have the intuition of how the history of Dawson City – and of capitalism – not always had shined, so to speak, of luminous events. It’s a narration bearing strong passages, to which Bill Morrison doesn’t mean to confer any judgement: everything is presented with the spontaneity though which History gives itself. In this scenario it’s almost as if the films, rediscovered and saved from certain disruption, had the power to liberate a place and its past.

We read that you started your career as a visual artist. How does this affect the way you highlight and play with the corruption of the archival films featured in Dawson City?

The corruption of the archival films from Dawson City is mostly water damage, so it wasn’t the initial thing that drove me to the collection as for Decasya, the reason for this film is nitrate deterioration. With Dawson City the water damage was something that came into the collection as it was being discovered, it marked every film differently, which is really interesting to me. I would say for my work in general – you mentioned I came into film as a visual artist, as a painter – I was always interested in film as a plastic medium, as something that can interact with the world. Not just being frozen into black boxes or digital file, but something that can be corrupted but still lives, just as we all age. With Dawson City I was drawn to that collection because of course I realized it’s a collection that lasted a really long time, buried in a swimming pool, you can hardly find a more enthralling story than this. As a leap of faith I thought that these films were deteriorated: in fact they are, but in a different way. The deterioration that happens it’s mostly incidental, I would say that it doesn’t get inside the images the same way nitrate deterioration does, by which they seem to melt: the bases change form and the motion goes in different directions. In this case you see this white flutter that exists on top of the image which is called the Dawson flutter in the archive world. It’s very easy to identify because most of nitrate film doesn’t have water damage, has nitrate damage, so this was a very peculiar collection.

But I would say that I was drawn to the entire collection with this idea that the films from the swimming pool could tell the story of how they got to the swimming pool and this is also in keeping with my history as a visual artist – you want somehow the content to reflect the form of the painting, I am very interested in this type of filmmaking as well. So it was a sort of leap of faith, I didn’t know what conditions there films were in and I came to understand that there was this type of water damage, which has its own beauty but I really see it as on top of the image, rather than from behind the image or within the image. At times it represents fire, like in the Edison’s footage whit its conflagration, the final shot of the film, with this dancer that seems to be escaping fire.

Yes, in fact we were about to ask you about the salamander, we were so charmed by that, this mythical figure evoked in Edison’s shooting that seems to dance through fire without being harmed. In general we could see that there is this intimate dialogue between elements… There is something really fascinating about how you interconnect artificial material and natural elements. So we were wondering if you also considered a certain sensitivity of the archival images, evoking with their degrees of deterioration informal abstraction in painting. There is such a gap between the figurative parts in the film and the informal parts (deteriorated parts).

Yes, the different storylines of these archival fragments disclose the main narration of my documentary sometimes in an amusing and unexpected way, so in this case dispensing with the formal element and naturally using the narrative of these older films. And that’s the basic device of the storytelling throughout it’s a merging of the ( …) but I think you’re made aware that these are discrete clips, rather than a continuative narrative, by many different means: there’s a title on each clip, that designates the sources – whether they come from the swimming pool (Dawson City Film Find) or whether they’re just supporting archival material. They give you an idea of what the original relationship was, but also the relationship to each other – you’re aware that you’re seeing this discrete scene, even if you might think it’s a continuous sequence.

Also the way that the sound designer works, John Somers: he developed a program where he was watching the visual noise of the Dawson flutter and making not only a sound design but a noise design, that was directly depending on the visual information, so that each clip also sounds different, so each clip gives you a clue that you’re watching a stack of scenes, which I think it’s an important subliminal message for the film.

There are many hidden levels underneath the surface of the film. How do you think your work engages with nowadays’ political scenario? Because we could see many references.

Well, Dawson City is a really interesting test tube: it’s a singular example of compressed history. To Europeans of course our entire American history looks compressed and very young, but Dawson City takes it one step further. It exists in this sort of extended indigenous population world until almost the 20th century: it’s almost inevitable that of course technology and expansion is going to catch up with it, but when it does it happens really quickly, because there’s so much gold involved. It goes from being this fishing and hunting camp one year to being this already well formed western town and a western town of great extravagance, where you can find caviar and champagne and of course gambling and prostitution in very short order. So, likewise its rise and fall happens equally fast. Starting from 1898, Dawson City became a very profitable mining town that managed to sustain 10000 people and then, as larger money was involved, it became a corporatized and mechanized city with less of a labour force. So within a course of maybe 12 years you see a town grown from an Indian camp into a depressed mid-western city, where industries have already come and gutted the work force. So it’s a very compressed history and in this way it becomes a metaphor for what’s happening in my country and in a lot of developed industrial countries where you see it’s sort of eating its own tail… It’s commune and it’s the story of capitalism, it can only grow bigger before it collapses. I think the ultimate irony, of course well quoted, it’s Donald Trump’s grandfather, one of these brothel owners in Dawson Town who is profiting off of other people in search for greed: he has the forsake to see what the profit could be made by accommodating for this people searching for the holy grail.

You’re seeing the same thing with his grandson, selling a bill of goods to people who are aspiring to get rich and profiting off of them.

We were also considering the whole process by which Dawson City archival film material has been retrieved: it seems to reflect the way you work with editing, the structure and the music, as you mentioned, so all these subliminal levels create a depth that surprised us. It’s like a meta-reflexive use of the images from the silent films to comment or to represent the story of Dawson City. This was really fascinating and also post-modern in its own way.

Well of course there is no image from Dawson City that was frozen in the swimming pool, those were supporting materials, but there is a way these stories could be told through that. Some of that was just searching for key-words that showed up in the data-base, such as film or gold or swimming pool. But the real blessing in addition to what was held into the swimming pool, it’s the fact that it is an incredible well-mediated town, it has always been in love with its own image, and as film grew up depicting it – the gold rush, that sort of infatuation for what it’s called a northern – we don’t have that expression anymore – we still talk about a western, but until the Twenties there was a northern – that was basically Dawson City. There was a Canadian Mountie, a bear and then there was a girl, a tough girl, with a very sweet heart standing behind the bar, a dancing casino. There was a Dawson City in people’s mind that has formed an entire genre of film and, Darkening Trail is one of them. So that place had its own love affair with itself and with cinema, also coming to reflect that same image that cinema had come to embrace. An then there was this incredible amount of footage that people had shot, City of Gold is an amazing film – it depicts the 50’s, and there were only nine-hundred people living in town at that point or these home movies of George Black who was a member of Parliament: they were taking amateur films in great number of reels, 60 millimeter reels and they were foresight films: of theaters as they were burning down, filmed the Orpheum theater as it was burning down, really understanding that these were symbolic of the old Dawson City and that once they burnt down, that was a new era. By filming the Orpheum burning down and then filming the new Orpheum as a modern theater there was this awareness of the fact that they were really watching the century go by. So this people understood for the Gates oak as well, they were taking pictures of these films as they were coming out of the ground: the people who lived in Dawson understood that it was this compressed time capsule of the town and anything that ever happened is sort of speaking as a rather compressed history of the 20th century.

Laura Di Nicolantonio, Beatrice Seligardi and Margherita Caprilli