‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ Invites Us to Discover the Nitrate Films Found in Dawson City

By Tracy Wang

Written and directed by Bill Morrison, ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’ is a documentary film about the discovery of more than five hundred nitrate films under the original site of Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (D.A.A.A.). However, even though it is a film on the history journey of the nitrate films when they were first screened, then burnt, abandoned and finally discovered in 1978, it is also a film on the history of Klondike Gold Rush and the rise and fall of Dawson City.

The documentary begins with sound and color; an interview is happening on TV about the discovery of these lost films, but it soon goes into the silent mode and discusses how a prospector found gold in the meeting place of Yukon and Klondike Rivers. As the news spread, people started rushing into Dawson City through Skagway, Alaska. Of the 100,000 people who started the arduous journey, 70, 000 of them either returned or perished along the way. However, the challenges did not deter people who wished to find gold; soon, families arrived, and dance halls, cinemas, and gambling houses were built.

However, as Whitehorse was made capital, and the gold mining business dwindled, the population also reduced drastically. As the end of the line of film distribution, Dawson City watched films that were released two to three years ago, and with the cost of shipping those films back to its origin being so high, most of the distributors refused to pay their return journeys. Thus, these nitrate films were stored in multiple places in Dawson City. With the storage places filled to capacity, people burnt as well as threw them into the river. As a result, most of these films were lost, till the discovery of some films under an ice rink in D.A.A.A..

Through ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time’, audiences who are interested in the film industry as well as silent films get a rare opportunity to witness the journey of nitrate films to Dawson City, and experience so many film clips that were thought as lost once. With most of the two-hour film in silence except the background music, we are instantly transferred to the era of silent films, and have the chance to appreciate them in their original forms. What makes watching these films an even more enriching experience is the background music by Alex Somers. The music throughout seems to have become the heartbeat of the film in which it complements as well as creates necessary vibes or tones in different parts of the film. It brings out the tonal changes of the subject matters, and acts as the dialogues and narrations that we are so used to having. One example is when the film mentions the Ludlow Massacre, the music instantly becomes much more chaotic, loud and intruding.

Besides using music as narration, the film also uses the found nitrate film clips to literally and figuratively illustrate what different stages of the film are trying to express. One of the final scenes showcases a clip in which a woman is trying hard to get rid of the scarf covering her face; through her action of unraveling the scarf from her face, we recognize that her action represents the discovery of the lost treasure, the nitrate films, and now we can all look clearly without any hindrances. With the film clips also complementing the historical evolution of Dawson City, we not only get to watch these important clips but also receive a much more interesting and easy way of learning the complicated history of Klondike Gold Rush.

One other surprising factor of the film is its inclusiveness of many discussions on a variety of topics other than gold and also numerous significant figures in different fields. Though at first glance, the film seems to be solely on gold and nitrate films, it is in reality a complex history lesson told with lively historical figures or names (ex: Jack London) that we can still recognize today, and with a lot of references to sports field, Hollywood, WWII, labor laws and so on. By including such a large amount of important names and events in history, we are no longer just watching some old silent films with a long history lesson; instead, we learn the history of the origin and end of gold rush through engaging visual presentations of the film clips and relevant information presented with newspaper articles and photographs.