Dawson City: Frozen Time

Studio: Kino Lorber
Directed by Bill Morrison

Jun 08, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Film, as this documentary reminds us, was born of an explosive substance. Because the materials used in producing early cinema’s nitrate film stock – which shared some of the same chemical properties of warheads used in the Spanish-American War – were prone to spontaneous combustion, as much as 75% of all silent movies are assumed to have been lost. This is the reason why the discovery of more than 500 discarded film reels on a Canadian demolition site in 1978 was such a staggering find. The cold climate of the Yukon town, Dawson City, helped preserve these early movies for decades after they were used as landfill and forgotten about. For film historians, the Dawson City discovery was truly buried treasure.

Documentarian Bill Morrison – director of Decasia, one of the most haunting and beautiful experimental films ever made – has re-utilized many of these important reels to make Dawson City: Frozen Time. This film chronicles not only the story of this important cinematic trove, but the story of Dawson City itself: its rapid formation during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s, its people, and its decline. Archival photographs are combined with clips from these previously-lost silent movies, illustrating the heartbreaking story of a crumbled place while also capturing a fascinating era for both cinema and North American history.

Morrison adds ambient sound to the clips – muffled voices, clattering machinery, flowing rivers – which helps to bring these historical snapshots to life. The majority of the information is relayed via on-screen text, which ensures the powerful soundtrack is uninterrupted. Running two hours, however, this will likely test many viewers’ endurance, as the lack of audio cues signaling new pieces of information will lead them to constantly search the screen for text, rather than focusing on the images. This is a shame, as the footage itself – naturally and beautifully damaged in a way that couldn’t be faked by the best of artists – is usually breathtaking. Still, Dawson City: Frozen Time remains a highly compelling documentary for fans of history, cinematic or otherwise. 


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