by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Bill Morrison
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100% Certified Fresh
PLOT: In 1978, a treasure trove of lost silent films and newsreels is discovered buried under permafrost in the Yukon.
Time travel is real. To the past, at least. The future’s another story. But you experience time travel every time you watch an old movie or look through photo albums. Light waves from years, decades, or perhaps just minutes ago are captured and stored on paper or your phone (or the “cloud”) so you or someone in the future can look at it and see what you looked like in your high school yearbook, or an old newspaper clipping, or that one candid shot from your cousin’s wedding.
You ever find an old dusty photo album in someone’s attic or a thrift store? You open it up, and there are people’s faces, and whether you know them or not, there they are. They may be long dead, but you are a time traveler, looking through a window into the past.
That’s what happened in 1978. In a small town in the Canadian Yukon called Dawson City, construction workers uncovered an old swimming pool dating back to the 1910s and ‘20s. Inside it, protected by the harsh permafrost, were hundreds of reels of old cellulose nitrate film. These reels included old silent films long thought lost, travelogues, and old newsreels, back when the concept of the newsreel was first invented. Back when cinema was a brand-new art form.
The story of how those films came to be buried for over sixty years is told in Brian Morrison’s documentary. Dawson City sprouted almost overnight back in 1896 in the wake of the Klondike Gold Rush that brought thousands of prospectors to the area. When they weren’t prospecting in the hills, all those people needed something to do. Casinos, restaurants, and dance halls fit the bill, but at some point, someone hit on the idea of building a theater to take advantage of the new art form sweeping the nation: silent films. Movie distributors down the coast in California included Dawson City on their list of customers, but because Dawson City was so remote, it was decided that it was too expensive to pay to have them shipped back to California. So they asked the Dawson City officials to just store them away – safely, as cellulose nitrate film was extremely flammable.
At some point, when the storage facility got too full, those old silent films were either chucked into the nearest river or used as landfill for an old swimming pool that was converted into a hockey rink. And there they stayed until 1978. When they were uncovered, they were carefully packed away and shipped to facilities in Canada and the U.S. where technicians painstakingly restored the films as best as they could.
What makes Dawson City: Frozen Time so unique and compelling is the fact that this entire history is told with virtually no narration, using only titles and footage from the restored silent films themselves. (Old photographs are also used, but these are no less haunting than the film clips themselves.) There is a romance to seeing these relatively ancient images brought to life once more, especially the documentary scenes showing daily life in a rough boomtown. We see old clips of men trudging up snowbound mountain passes for their shot at striking it rich. People walking the streets looking curiously at the camera…what is that thing, they’re probably thinking.
We see newsreels featuring the likes of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson before he and seven other players tarnished themselves with the White Sox scandal. We see a clip of spectators watching a baseball game from hundreds of miles away with the help of a telegraph and a big play-by-play scoreboard that featured little magnetic markers showing the progress of base runners in real time. (Ever watch a fantasy football play-by-play on your computer or phone? Same thing.) I never even knew anything like that existed.
The silent films themselves, like all the other reels, have varying degrees of damage, especially water damage. To try to watch one of them as an actual cinematic experience would be extremely distracting. But as a previously closed window into the past, they are fascinating. In my mind, it was like someone had opened a portal or a wormhole where we can see the past without interacting with it. The warps and spots and tears only make the experience even more exotic. It’s as if the fabric of the space-time continuum was being torn for our benefit, but it can only show us so much.
Maybe my imagination ran away with me. Who knows? I think this is the kind of documentary you’ll either love or hate. All I can say is that, for two hours, Dawson City: Frozen Time made me feel as transported as only film can do. The idea of knowing that these images were just waiting in a landfill to be discovered, and that here I am watching them now, sort of closing the circuit between past and present…it felt profound. I don’t know if this is streaming anywhere, but if you’re any kind of film fanatic, you owe it to yourself to check this out.