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Dawson City: Frozen Time

Film was born of an explosive

Documentarian Bill Morrison delivers a worthy follow-up to his classic 2002 film Decasia with another cinematic tone poem dedicated to the glories of silent cinema. Inspired by the discovery of a long-buried stash of hundreds of silent films in the titular Yukon Territory town, Dawson City: Frozen Time intrigues and delights with its copious footage from films previously thought lost forever.

Poster for the archivally creative documentary Dawson City: Frozen TimeDawson City, formerly populated by First Nations people, was established in 1896 with the advent of the Klondike Gold Rush. The town became the end of the road for silent film prints during the 1910s and 1920s. Its remote location made shipping them back to the United States prohibitively expensive, and thousands of films made from highly flammable nitrate stock were either burned ­– deliberately or accidentally – or dumped into the Yukon River.

Fortunately for future generations, hundreds of 35mm films ended up as landfill when locals filled up a swimming pool and converted it into an skating rink. In 1978, work crews discovered the films, many of which were remarkably well preserved having essentially been sealed in permafrost.

Morrison uses much of that footage as the basis for a film that encompasses many themes. He tells the story of the films’ discovery and preservation, which were largely due to the efforts of Yukon historians Michael Gates and Kathy Jones-Gates. He also addresses the history of film itself and the story of the town that fell on hard times once the Gold Rush petered out.

But it’s the flickering silent footage that gives Dawson City: Frozen Time its haunting qualities. Some of it is in pristine condition and some is in various states of decay. Whether it features long-forgotten performers, or silent screen stars like Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and William Desmond Taylor, or fascinating historical figures and events such as the infamously fixed 1919 World Series, the rescued footage proves consistently fascinating. Dawson City: Frozen Time represents a captivating time capsule that delivers a poignant paean to a long-gone cinematic era.

– Frank Scheck, The Hollywood Reporter

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