Top of the Docs #48 – Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media. This month we’ll be touring North America looking at documentaries focused on specific cities!

Bill Morrison is a filmmaker known for his fascination with the physical nature of film. His film Decasia (2002) shows this best as a film constructed from the corpses of numerous film reels, fetishizing the aesthetic of their decay. His use of archive film to test the very limits of celluloid is often something that comes into his practice, thus bleeding through into his work thematically. However, with Dawson City: Frozen Time the, extremities at which film can survive is told through a documentary narrative like no other.

Dawson City is centred around the 1978 Dawson film find, in which over 533 nitrate reels were discovered in the permafrost, containing lost silent films, news footage, and even films of national events such as the 1919 World Series. This, however, is just a jumping off point. Morrison uses the film find to explore the idea of the wandering nature of film prior to simultaneous releases (the final destination for most films was, of course, Dawson) and paralleling this with frontier times, when the land of the Trʼondëk Hwëchʼin became coveted by colonisers.

Morrison’s film captures the swiftness of which American history blazed across the continent. Within 100 years we see land stolen from its native people, a city rise to such euphoric highs before declining into a frozen wasteland. Much like the film find, Dawson City acts as a time capsule not just for Dawson, but for the many similar tales across a number of American cities.

The history of the town is used almost allegorically. The Gold Rush, Dawson’s rise and inevitable decline is paralleled with the film industry, and here Morrison is perhaps at his most pessimistic. Foregrounded, much like in his earlier work, is decay and a sense of loss – with the film opening with warnings about nitrate film and its dangers. Dawson City, though perhaps an exciting story of the discovery of lost treasures, also mourns the grandeur and passion that went into the creation of those artefacts.

The archival documentary is a genre of film that often leads to history being used figuratively, and with Dawson City, Morrison does so in a way that does not feel pretentious or at all condescending. Wedding a fascinating story with hard truths about cinema’s decline, at its heart Dawson City is a film about exactly what its title states. A town frozen in time, left behind by a future moving in such a way that it never had a chance of keeping up.

Trailer for Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is available to rent on Vimeo.

Header image courtesy of Bill Morrison and Criterion.