Dawson City: Frozen Time

Poster for Dawson City: Frozen Time

Filmmaker Bill Morrison pieces together the bizarre true history of a collection of 533 reels of film (representing 372 titles) dating from the 1910s-1920s, which were lost for more than 50 years until they were discovered buried in a sub-arctic swimming pool in Dawson City.

Using archival footage to tell the story, and accompanied by an originally composed score by Alex Somers (Captain Fantastic), Dawson City: Frozen Time depicts a unique history of a Canadian gold rush town by chronicling the life cycle of a singular film collection through its exile, burial, rediscovery and salvation—and through that collection, how a First Nation hunting camp was transformed and displaced.

Dawson City, located about 350 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is situated at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers and rests on a bed of permafrost. Historically, the area was an important hunting and fishing camp for a nomadic First Nation tribe known as Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. The town was settled in 1896—the same year large-scale cinema projectors were invented—and it became the center of the Klondike gold rush that brought 100,000 prospectors to the area. The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) opened in 1902 and began showing films. Dawson City became “the end of the line” for Canada’s film distribution system chain as it was too costly to return the films to the south.

By the late 1920s, 500,000 feet of film had accumulated in the basement of the local Library, under the care of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. In 1929, Clifford Thomson, bank employee and treasurer of the local hockey association, solved two nagging civic problems when he removed the films from the library basement, stacked them in the local pool, covered them with boards, and then a layer of earth to provide a level surface for the town’s new hockey rink. Films continued to be shipped to Dawson City, and in 1951, a fire fueled by new nitrate films that were being stored at the DAAA, burned the entire complex to the ground. The only films that were spared were those early ones buried in the permafrost below the hockey rink.

The films were rediscovered in 1978 when a new recreation center was being built and a bulldozer working its way through a parking lot dug up a horde of film cans. The films were subsequently salvaged, archived and restored.

The films are now housed in the Canadian Archives in Ottawa and at the US Library of Congress, which jointly restored all the titles to 35mm preservation masters.

“The thrilling documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time is indescribable not because it’s ambiguous (it’s totally straightforward) but because it does so many things so beautifully it is hard to know where to begin.” (Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times)

Dawson City now enters that time line as an instantaneously recognizable masterpiece.” (Glenn Kenny, The New York Times)

“The rise and fall of Dawson City, intimately tied to the vagaries of climate and man’s greed, is heartbreakingly rendered.” (Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor)