Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a 2016 American documentary film written, edited and directed by Bill Morrison[2] and produced by Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux. [3] It was screened in the Orizzonti Competition section at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival.[4] It concerns the history of Dawson City, Canada, deep in the Yukon, from its creation during the Klondike Gold Rush and culminating in the 1978 Dawson Film Find — the discovery of 533 silent film reels, thought to be lost, that had been buried in 1929 in a former swimming pool or hockey rink.[5][6] Along with the lost films, there was also rare footage of other historic events, including the 1919 World Series.[7]

Dawson City: Frozen Time
Film poster
Directed byBill Morrison
Produced byBill Morrison
Madeleine Molyneaux
Written byBill Morrison
Music byAlex Somers
Edited byBill Morrison
Hypnotic Pictures
Picture Palace Pictures
Distributed byKino Lorber
Cineteca Bologna
Release date
  • September 5, 2016 (2016-09-05) (Venice)
Running time
120 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$111,619[1]


The film centers around the 1978 discovery of 533 reels of film in Dawson City. Known as the Dawson Film Find, these works had been sealed within a decommissioned swimming pool. The content of the unearthed reels is used to tell the story of Dawson City, the dawn of 20th century America, and Hollywood in the silent era. The film depicts how what was once native land becomes a frontier, a boomtown, and an entertainment hub, before industrial monopolies and poverty of resources eventually return Dawson City to a modest encampment.

The film utilizes a number of silent film techniques, consistent with the subject matter. The film uses intertitles in place of voice-over narration and makes use of archival sound and a prominent musical score. That said, some portions, such as the interviews with those involved in the unearthing of the reels, have a more contemporary style.


The film begins with a description of the dangers of flammable nitrate film. This offers some insight into the fragility of the cinematic medium, the archive, and perhaps history itself. The story of Dawson City is repeatedly framed in terms of loss, with decay foregrounded by the introduction, the brooding score, and the story itself. The film also focuses on the history of exploitation in Dawson City, implying a parallel between the economic apparatus of the Klondike Gold Rush and that of the motion picture industry.[8]


Bill Morrison had initially envisioned the project to be similar to his 12-minute film The Film of Her (1996), but came to envision a broader scope as time went on. Kathy Jones and Michael Gates, employees of the Dawson Museum and Parks Canada respectively, were two of the early authorities on the Dawson City Film Find. Morrison interviewed both in 2014. Originally he did not intend to include the interview in the final film.[9] Morrison was able to recruit Alex Somers as composer after learning that the band Sigur Ros were fans of his previous film Decasia.[10]

Critical response

Dawson City: Frozen Time has received positive reviews from critics. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "If you love film, if you’re intoxicated by the way movies combine image and emotion, be prepared to swoon."[11] Deborah Eisenberg, writing in the New York Review of Books, summarized: "The film’s essence is echo, paradox, allusion—the lust for gold that drove hundreds of thousands toward the top of the world only to perish; film, the history-altering substance that records, informs, preserves, gives joy, consumes itself, and kills; Dawson City, the town that sprang up on frozen land, flourishing by impoverishing another population; the cyclical catastrophes from which it continued to rebuild itself. Not only are both nitrate film and Dawson City expressions of humanity’s irrepressible creativity, they are also both expressions of humanity’s irrepressible destructiveness."[12] Glenn Kenny of The New York Times praised the film "as an instantaneously recognizable masterpiece."[13] Rotten Tomatoes reports a 100% approval rating based on 54 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.08/10. The site's consensus reads: "Dawson City: Frozen Time takes a patient look at the past through long-lost film footage that reveals much more than glimpses at life through the camera's lens".[14]


  1. "Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)". Box Office Mojo. Internet Movie Database. Retrieved August 28, 2017.
  2. "Dawson City: Frozen Time". Picture Palace Pictures. September 19, 2016. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  3. TCM.com
  4. "La Biennale di Venezia - Orizzonti". Archived from the original on October 4, 2016. Retrieved August 21, 2016.
  5. Weschler, Lawrence (September 14, 2016). "The Discovery, and Remarkable Recovery, of the King Tut's Tomb of Silent-Era Cinema". Vanity Fair. Retrieved July 20, 2017.
  6. "Lost and Found no. 2 – Dawson City". The Bioscope. September 19, 2016. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  7. "Footage of scandalous 1919 World Series saved by Yukon permafrost". CBC News. September 19, 2016. Retrieved September 19, 2016.
  8. The Filmmaker as Miner: An Interview with Bill Morrison on JSTOR (Bill Morrison and Scott MacDonald Cinéaste Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 2016), pp. 40-43)
  9. The Filmmaker as Miner: An Interview with Bill Morrison on JSTOR (Bill Morrison and Scott MacDonald Cinéaste Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 2016), pp. 40-43)
  10. The Filmmaker as Miner: An Interview with Bill Morrison on JSTOR (Bill Morrison and Scott MacDonald Cinéaste Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 2016), pp. 40-43)
  11. Turan, Kenneth (June 15, 2017). "'Dawson City: Frozen Time' details the astonishing discovery of a treasure-trove of forgotten film". Los Angeles Times.
  12. Eisenberg, Deborah (August 16, 2018). "After the Gold Rush". ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  13. Kenny, Glenn (June 8, 2017). "In 'Dawson City: Frozen Time,' Early Movies Lost and Found". The New York Times.
  14. "Dawson City: Frozen Time". Rotten Tomatoes. July 1, 2019.
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