Directed by Bill Morrison
Dawson City: Frozen Time covers the Gold Rush, the history of film and the quick rise and decline of a small town in Western Canada, all instigated by the 1978 discovery of old silent films believed to have been lost forever. Outside of the opening and closing handful of minutes there is no talking, only archival footage and text, like footnotes, explaining to us the importance of these moments in time. Reading the “script” to the film might feel like a dry chapter in a History textbook, but along with the images and old, damaged film and Alex Somers’ hypnotic score, Bill Morrison brings this all to life. After watching the film I found myself wishing I could similarly relive the history of other towns and cities across the world. The things we take for granted, when traced to their origins, suddenly become riveting.
“I quickly saw this peculiar tale as a synopsis of the American Experience in fast forward: the displacement of the indigenous people carried out on the dream of the individual striking it rich on his own, which gave way to the corporatization and mechanized harvesting of resources, and the exploitation of the workers and destruction of the environment, which eventually killed the town off, all within a couple generations.” – Director Bill Morrison
We’re told upfront why this is all noteworthy. In 1978 a construction crew, while digging through an old lot, found hundreds of reels of old silent films. They had been preserved by the ice which they were for so long immersed in, and their existence is unique because, we learn, so many films from those days (early 1910s) were destroyed by fire thanks to the flammability of nitrate film.
Such a tendency to spontaneously combust makes film feel all the more magical, and it explains why these reels are so rare. From there the film takes us back to the early years of film, in the late 1800’s with the Lumiere Brothers. The documentary takes its time in setting up this thread and others, including the indigenous population at the time, so that they may all link up later.
We learn about the tribes which once inhabited the area that would become Dawson City but which were displaced by the Gold Rush of 1898. The rags to riches hopes of many helped create the town virtually overnight, but within a year most had left to seek greener pastures.
The old film reels come into play, eventually, when we learn that Dawson City was simply at the end of a long line of cities waiting to receive the reels. Because of how limited the reels were and how long they took to travel, the small Canadian town often wouldn’t see these films until two or three years after the initial release. Once they completed their run there was nowhere else to send these films. The movie studios themselves didn’t want them back and instructed the town to destroy the old reels. Instead they buried them beneath a hockey rink to act as landfill.
In the decades between then and the eventual fire that destroyed the hockey rink (there were a lot of fires over the years), the films would occasionally make themselves known, a couple frames here and there sticking out of the ice. The kids who played nearby would then just light them on fire and delight in the sudden fireworks display.
These old silent film reels are shown to us at various points throughout the documentary. It doesn’t matter what their stories are, though onscreen text tells us the film’s title, but just that we watch how they move and emote. These are lenses into another time, from which most filmed documentation is gone, and as Morrison notes, they act as “social memory.” When the films disappear, or disappear again, they close a window into a different era.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is captivating. It’s simple and quiet, and the images take on new life as Morrison gives us context, even if it’s just a couple or more details on a particular person’s life. When he gives us someone’s name only to mention them once more later on, it offers depth into this world. What could just feel like a visualization of a wikipedia article quickly becomes much more.
The whole documentary feels like an experience. It’s as though you’ve just lived through nearly an entire century, watching the town grow, burn and reshape itself. You can’t help but think of your own place in history and the world and, hopefully, appreciate the insignificance of your being but the significance of your own experience.
Up Next: RoboCop (1987), Memphis Belle (1990), Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)