'Dawson City: Frozen Time': Film Review | NYFF 2016

A haunting cinematic time capsule.

Bill Morrison's documentary features footage from hundreds of silent films discovered in a Yukon Territory landfill.

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 should delight cinephiles with its copious footage from films previously thought lost forever. Recently showcased at the New York Film Festival, the documentary should find receptive audiences at festivals and art houses.

Dawson City, formerly populated by the aboriginal 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 ice-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 of it, like the footage in Decasia, is in various states of decay. Whether it features long-forgotten performers; 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. And while Alex Somers' accompanying score is overbearing at times (Michael Gordon's music for Decasia was much less intrusive), it effectively sets an elegiac mood.

Dawson City: Frozen Time could have benefited from judicious trimming of its two-hour running time, and there are times when its wandering focus proves irritating. But, at its best, the film represents a captivating time capsule that delivers a poignant paean to a long-gone cinematic era.   

Venue: New York Film Festival
Production: Hypnotic Pictures, Picture Palace Pictures
Director-editor: Bill Morrison
Producers: Madeleine Molyneaux, Bill Morrison
Composer: Alex Somers
Not rated, 120 minutes