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Documentary Review – Dawson City: Frozen Time

There’s a high chance that you haven’t heard of Dawson City, a small town in Yukon, Canada, with a population of 1,375, but for a brief time it was the city that represented the “American dream”, a town where you could finally make it. It’s a place that has always been inhabited, in prehistoric times the area was used for agriculture by the Hän-speaking people of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.

The heart of their homeland was Tr’ochëk, a fishing camp at the confluence of the Klondike River and Yukon River. It has always been an important gathering place, full of historical and significant importance. The current settlement was founded by Joseph Ladue and named in January 1897 after noted Canadian geologist George M. Dawson, who had explored and mapped the region in 1887. Dawson City soon became the hub for the Canadian Gold Rush which brought an impressive amount of prospectors (approximately 100,000) swarming to the area, eager to get rich quick. So, how did the thriving city at the turn of the 20th century become a forgotten little town frozen in time?

Dawson City Frozen Time

Director Bill Morrison pieces together the extraordinary true history of this city using a long-lost collection of 533 nitrate film prints from the early 1900s. Aside from being the centre of the Gold Rush, Dawson city was also the final stop for a distribution chain that sent prints and newsreels to the Yukon. The films were seldom, if ever, returned. The studios told the town to simply get rid of the reels, which upon reflection seems like such a waste and sadly many reels which discarded into the yukon river or set on fire.

The infamous Dawson City Collection was uncovered in 1978 when a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans, in an old swimming pool which had been filled in. This how the film starts, with footage of diggers bringing up the frozen earth to reveal the treasures hidden underneath the snow. It’s a moment of awe and wonder, as it is estimated that 75% of film produced in the silent movie era have been lost. As a film graduate and a silent film enthusiast, I can’t help but wonder what wonders have been lost to time and can only imagine of how the films would have looked like. It seems like such a reflection of our throw-away culture, that we have so carelessly treated items of significant in such a shameful way.

Morrison uses these permafrost-protected, rare silent films and newsreels, pairing them with archival footage, interviews, historical photographs, to document the growth of this iconic little town in a touching and moving way. There is footage from such classic films as Charlie Chaplin’s Gold Rush and Ted Browning’s Freaks, paired with footage from forgotten dramas like The Unpardonable Sin and A Stolen Paradise. There is no voice over narration, just a few brief sentences on screen telling us what occurred and a moving score from Sigur Rós collaborator and composer Alex Somers, the images speak louder than words. The end result is an experience like no other, this is the closest we will get to travelling in time. This film is our window into a forgotten past and I urge anyone who apperications the art of cinema to seek this out.


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