‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ Uses A Cache Of Unearthed Silent Films To Explore The Past


Located in a remote spot along the Yukon River in the upper reaches of Canada, Dawson City is now home to about 1400. But it was once, briefly, the center of the world. Or at least the center of the Klondike Gold Rush, which for much of 1898 was and effectively the center of the world for those swept up in a moment in which fortunes and reputations were made overnight and a city carved out of virtually nothing to meet the needs.

The Gold Rush also roughly coincided with the popularization of movies, and while those two events would seem to have little in common, Dawson City tangled their histories together. In later years, when the Gold Rush gave way to mechanized drilling overseen by a single company, Dawson City became the end of the line for film distribution. Movies would play one of its two theaters then prints would remain in town since distributors didn’t want to pay the cost to send them back.

Studios and distributors in the silent era saw movies as products that had no value beyond their initial run, which goes a long way toward explaining why 75% of all silent films are now lost. Were it not for Dawson, that percentage would be a tad higher. While many films ended up getting thrown out with the rest of the town’s garbage — which was set on ice floes and allowed to float downstream — some remained stored in the town’s library then, later, used to fill in a disused swimming pool. And there they remained for decades until uncovered by a backhoe as part of a construction project, preserved beneath permafrost that helped keep their volatile nitrate from combusting.

It’s a fascinating story, one that would easily lend itself to a fine traditional documentary. And while director Bill Morrison bookends Dawson City: Frozen Time by talking to those who made the discovery and laying out what it means, he has ambitions for the film that make it far more compelling than a more traditional approach could — while remaining just as informative.

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