Dawson City: Frozen Time tells two stories, both fascinating. The first has to do with the accidental discovery of 35mm film reels buried in the Yukon over one hundred years ago and miraculously preserved by the permafrost. The second is the incredible boom-and-bust-and-boom-and-bust saga of Dawson City itself, where the movies were discovered. Filmmaker Bill Morrison, who has made dramatic use of decaying silent footage before (in such features as Decasia) has hit the bull’s-eye here, as his two narratives fold together in serendipitous fashion.
The films resided in Dawson City, Canada for the same reason that long-lost American films were discovered in New Zealand several years ago: it didn’t pay to ship the prints back to their distributors, as this was the last stop on their theatrical run. They were routinely destroyed, by setting them on fire or dumping them in the water. (The Klondike and Yukon rivers meet at Dawson City.) In this case, 500 films were moved to the local hockey rink and buried underground. Construction of a new recreation center in 1978 revealed the cache when bulldozers started digging. The amazing “find” became a major news story at the time.
Then there is the evolution of Dawson City, a historic hunting and fishing ground for a First Nation tribe. They were peremptorily moved when gold was discovered and a major gold rush resulted in 1896-98, bringing 100,000 would-be prospectors to the town. With an overnight population came all the benefits and ills of civilization, including movie theaters, and a motley collection of fortune-seekers including newsboy Sid Grauman and a hotelier named Fred Trump.
I saw this film a few weeks ago and can’t stop thinking about it; in fact, I want to watch it again to fully digest everything it has to tell me. Morrison’s purposeful editing and story sense—using archival photos and newspaper clippings, actuality footage and scenes from dramatic films as well—make Frozen Time a mesmerizing tale. Alex Somers’ score suits the material to a T.
Dawson City: Frozen Time opens today at Landmark’s NuArt Theatre in Los Angeles, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, and Digital Gym in San Diego. To learn more and see when it may be playing near you, click HERE