Friday, July 14, 2017

Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)


Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

It's a cinephile's dream to unearth a trove of silent gems. Films unseen for many decades, written off as lost forever are brought to life again. When this event occurs usually one or two films are found in someone's attic or shed. Sometimes these discoveries happen in lands many miles away from birthplace of the film. We hear about newly discovered silents, sometimes entire films, sometimes just fragments, coming from South America or Australia.

"Dawson had an idle, captive audience ready to be entertained." - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada is over three thousand miles away from Hollywood. It's an isolated city in the heart of the gold rush territory of the north. Once a gambling town that suffered from countless fires, it eventually became the home of a small community of just under 1,000 people. In the 1910s and 1920s, Dawson City residents were captivated by the silent films shown at their local athletic center's family theater. Dawson was the end of the line for film distribution. Back in those days, film distributors would send out nitrate prints for rental periods. After the rental period was over, the theaters would send back the prints. Because Dawson was so far away, it would sometimes take 2-3 years to arrive in Dawson. Not only was it cost-prohibitive to pay to get the prints back, by then the distributors were no longer interested in them. The local Dawson bank was in charge of making sure the films were only screened during that rental period before locking them up. As the years passed they ran out of room. Crates of nitrates were set ablaze, dumped in the Yukon river and just over 500 reels were used to fill a pool in the local athletic center.  Over 50 years later, those reels, buried in permafrost and forgotten were unearthed.

A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time.
A nitrate reel unearthed from the permafrost. Dawson City: Frozen Time. Photo source: Kino Lorber


"The world outside of Yukon flickered through their screens."  - Dawson City: Frozen Time

Director Bill Morrison's new documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), explores the discovery of those 500 reels but also the history of Dawson City and it's long connection with Hollywood. The documentary has no narration and only a couple of interviews at the beginning and the end of the film. Most of it watches like a silent movie. It's made of photographic images shot in the Ken Burns style as well as a plethora of film clips, many of which are Dawson City film finds. Morrison and his team expertly weave together photographs, film clips, captions and ethereal music. Audiences will learn about the early days of Dawson City, time spent there and in the Yukon by known Hollywood figures such as Sid Grauman, Fatty Arbuckle and William Desmond Taylor. We learn about volatile medium of nitrate film and the neglect of silent film in the talkie era.

When you watch this documentary, you get a sense of how movies made the world seem smaller and more accessible. I'm fascinated by how the filmmakers were able to incorporate so much relevant footage. For example, director Alice Guy-Blache is briefly profiled and not only do we see film footage of the Solax Film Laboratories fire (she was co-founder and director of that laboratory) but also a clip from one of her silent films that was uncovered in the Dawson City find. Some might find this film a bit quirky with its lack of talking heads and narration. The music at times is surreal and ominous. I enjoyed all these elements but for some who are used to traditionally styled documentaries it would be important to know this before diving head first into the film.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is an expertly crafted documentary and a fascinating story of one small town and their extraordinary find. It's well worth the time of any hardcore cinephile.



Dawson City: Frozen Time screened earlier this year at the TCM Classic Film Festival and I unfortunately wasn't able to attend that screening. I put it high on my wish list of new documentaries to watch and it did not disappoint. The film is currently on theater tour across the country with screenings books from now until early September. You can find future screening dates here. Kino Lorber will be releasing Dawson City: Frozen Time on DVD in the near future.

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a screener for this film!

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