Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a 2016 American documentary film written, edited, and directed by Bill Morrison,[2] produced by Morrison and Madeleine Molyneaux.[3] First screened in the Orizzonti competition section at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival,[4] the film details the history of the remote Yukon town of Dawson City, from the Klondike Gold Rush to the 1978 Dawson Film Find: a discovery of 533 nitrate reels containing numerous lost films. The recovered silent films, buried beneath a hockey rink in 1929,[5][6] included shorts, features, and newsreel footage of various events, such as the 1919 World Series.[7]

Dawson City: Frozen Time
Dawson City film poster.jpg
Film poster
Directed byBill Morrison
Written byBill Morrison
Produced byBill Morrison
Madeleine Molyneaux
Edited byBill Morrison
Music byAlex Somers
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 1978 discovery of 533 reels of nitrate film beneath the permafrost of a decommissioned swimming pool, later known as the Dawson Film Find, serves to frame a narrative of the Canadian gold rush, the dawn of 20th century America, and Hollywood in the silent era.

Contents of the unearthed reels help portray the story of Dawson City: how native lands of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin became a frontier, a boomtown, and an entertainment hub, before industrial monopolies and poverty of resources ensued. The 1957 documentary City of Gold captured Dawson in the shadow of its former glory.

The film utilizes a number of silent film techniques, consistent with the subject matter, including intertitles in place of voice-over narration, as well as archival sound and a prominent musical score. Brief interviews with those who saved the reels have a more contemporary documentary 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 responseEdit

Dawson City: Frozen Time has received positive reviews from critics. Rotten Tomatoes reports a 100% approval rating based on 61 reviews, with a weighted average of 8.10/10. 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".[11] Dawson City: Frozen Time appeared on more than 100 critics' lists of the best films of 2017,[12] and on numerous lists of the best films of the 2010s, including those from the Associated Press,[13] Los Angeles Times (Kenneth Turan),[14] and Vanity Fair (Richard Lawson).[15] 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."[16] Deborah Eisenberg, writing in the New York Review of Books, summarized: "Dawson City: Frozen Time is nominally a documentary—it is a documentary—but describing it as a documentary is something like describing Ulysses as a travel guide to Dublin. The film is transfixing, an utterly singular compound of the bizarre, the richly informative, the thrilling, the horrifying, the goofy, the tragic, and the flat-out gorgeous."[17] Glenn Kenny of The New York Times praised the film "as an instantaneously recognizable masterpiece."[18]


  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. ^ "Dawson City: Frozen Time". Rotten Tomatoes. January 3, 2021.
  12. ^ "Dawson City: Frozen Time awards and year-end lists". Hypnotic Pictures. December 31, 2019.
  13. ^ Coyle, Jake (December 13, 2017). "'Tree of Life' tops AP's best 10 films of the decade". Associated Press.
  14. ^ Turan, Kenneth (December 30, 2017). "The best movies of the decade: Kenneth Turan and Justin Chang's essential picks". Los Angeles Times.
  15. ^ Lawson, Richard (November 26, 2017). "The 10 Best Movies of the 2010s: Richard Lawson's List". Vanity Fair.
  16. ^ Turan, Kenneth (June 15, 2017). "'Dawson City: Frozen Time' details the astonishing discovery of a treasure-trove of forgotten film". Los Angeles Times.
  17. ^ Eisenberg, Deborah (August 16, 2018). "After the Gold Rush". New York Review of Books. ISSN 0028-7504. Retrieved October 4, 2019.
  18. ^ Kenny, Glenn (June 8, 2017). "In 'Dawson City: Frozen Time,' Early Movies Lost and Found". The New York Times.

External linksEdit