In 1978, workers digging up foundations for new construction in Dawson City, Canada, came across an unusual discovery under the earth. Buried in a former swimming pool were around 500 nitrate film prints dating back from the 1900s. The cold ground preserved many of them and they were sent to archives, allowing access to many films (or at least segments of them) thought lost. They were kept together in such a way because Dawson City was the end of a distribution line for films back then and the distributors didn’t want the prints back as it was too costly to pay for carriage all the way from the fairly remote city. So, with mountains of prints piling up in Dawson, the theatre owners and councils ended up dumping them largely in the Yukon River but a pile of them ended up in a swimming pool before it was filled up to make an ice-rink.
Although it wasn’t the largest or most well preserved silent film find that has been made over the years, it is one of the most famous due to its unusual nature. It’s pretty well known among film historians and archivists. The filmmaker Bill Morrison was aware of it from his studies in film, but hadn’t given it much thought until later into his career making art films and documentaries largely using archive material, that he was reminded of the find. When viewing titles from the Dawson film archive and realising what was in there, he embarked on a project to make a documentary about the find. The end product, Dawson City: Frozen in Time is being released on Blu-Ray and DVD by Second Run after enjoying much success on the festival circuit, bagging a number of awards.
The film starts off traditionally, with an excerpt from a talk show Morrison went on about the project, a clip from the premiere of the footage in Dawson City in the late 70s and even some talking heads from the couple who discovered the reels and arranged for them to be preserved. After this introduction though, Dawson City: Frozen in Time becomes something far more unique. After the brief clips early on, the film’s story is told almost solely through captions and archive material itself. Much of this is from the find, but there are also many photographs we learn were discovered in an equally surprising way, as well as newspaper clippings and footage from other films of the era.
The way Morrison incorporates the material is what makes it special. Using his experience in making art films, he matches the archive footage with a hypnotic score and sound design that perfectly complements his entrancing editing style. The Dawson films were severely water damaged and there was only so much that could be done to restore them, but Morrison embraces this, finding great beauty in the uniquely distorted and dissolved edges of the frames. The music/sound design enhances this even further by using software that interpreted the visual damage as sound. This, alongside the nature of the footage itself and the score, gives the film a wonderfully haunting quality, echoing the decaying and dangerously combustible nature of nitrate film.
All this would be for nothing, were the story itself uninteresting though. The tale of the find is eye-opening of course, but wouldn’t make for a feature film. Morrison extends the story by matching the footage with the fascinating history of Dawson City as a whole (it was one of the first major ‘gold rush’ settlements), as well as charting the birth of cinema along the way. We are occasionally presented with seemingly tangental facts and imagery, but much of this finds relevance later on as the story develops. The asides that aren’t connected to other narratives are still effective though in pushing us forward in the chronological timeline of the film, as well as highlighting the historical importance of some of the material that was found. That said, the different avenues taken, particularly in the film’s mid-section, do slow the pace down a bit, causing a bit of a lull. Things pick up as the film moves towards the end though, culminating in a surprisingly moving and suitably poetic final ‘act’.
All in all, it’s a truly unique documentary that is one-part history lesson, one-part ode to the beauty of silent cinema and one-part art film. It’s a remarkable piece of work with a fascinating and poignant story to tell.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is out on 18th February on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Second Run. I watched the Blu-Ray version and although it’s hard to judge the picture quality due to the degraded nature of the material, it’s hard to imagine it looking any better. The music sounds fantastic too, particularly in the 5.1 mix, which was the track I chose when I watched the film.
Plenty of special features are included too:
– Dawson City Frozen Time presented from a new 4K master
– New and exclusive interview with filmmaker Bill Morrison
– Dawson City: Postscript
– Short film The Letter
– Selections from the Dawson Film Find:
– British Canadian Pathé News 1919 (includes 1919 World Series),
– International News Vol. 1, Issue 52, 1919
– The Montreal Herald Screen Magazine 1919
– Pathé’s Weekly #17, 1914
– The Butler and the Maid, Thomas A. Edison Inc., 1912
– Brutality, D.W. Griffith, Biograph Company, 1912
– The Exquisite Thief, r.2, director, Tod Browning, 1919
– The Girl of the Northern Woods, Thanhouser, 1910
– Booklet featuring a new essay on the film.
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.
– Region Free Blu-ray (A/B/C)
– DTS-HD 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo 24-bit LPCM audio options.
The interview with Morrison does a great job of telling us what drew him to make the film and how he went about doing it. The ‘postscript’ piece adds more technical detail as to what happened to the material after it was found, as well as telling us a little more about Dawson’s history after the period covered by the film. The Letter is another hauntingly beautiful art film created by Morrison using some of the Dawson films. The rest of the material here is a sample of the reels found in the city. At first I thought I wouldn’t be interested in going through it all, but once I checked one of the short films to see what it was like I got hooked and watched all of it. It provides an enticing and illuminating window to the past. The clips also include excerpts from films by famous directors and producers such as D.W. Griffith, Tod Browning and Thomas A. Edison.
As usual, the booklet is superb. Writer, editor, film/festival/event producer and curator Gareth Evans provides a thoughtful analysis of the film, but it’s Kristin Thompson’s detailed commentary/essay that I found most enlightening. She dampens the importance of the Dawson City find and criticises some aspects missing from the film, but still praises its approach for the most part and fills us in on details about the find absent from it.