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Lost silent films are resurrected in the documentary 'Dawson City: Frozen Time'

In 1978, a bulldozer unearthed something rather strange in Dawson City, a spot along the Yukon River in Canada: film cans. Lots and lots of film cans.

These were not discarded home movies. Instead, the film cans housed a stunning collection of silent cinema -- 533 prints, to be exact. This is an entirely new definition of “found footage.”

What was found on those prints forms the basis for much of the breathtakingly original documentary “Dawson City: Frozen Time.” This fascinating mix of rare silent films, newsreels, historical photographs, and present-day interviews is showing on Sept. 22, 24, 25, and 27 at Amherst’s Screening Room Cinema (screeningroom.net).

It is the latest creation of director Bill Morrison, whose work often utilizes archival footage. Morrison is best known for 2002’s “Decasia,” a critically acclaimed film using silent film.

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” is his most accessible work to date. It’s a documentary that would not look out of place on, say, PBS. But Morrison’s ambitions are so vast that it is really a movie made for the big screen. The silent films glimpsed here deserve to grace such screens one more time.

“Dawson City” opens with a brief explanation of how the films were discovered. Quickly, however, Morrison shifts the focus to Dawson City’s past. It was an essential location on the great Gold Rush.

In fact, the story of “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is the story of the Gold Rush -- the boom, the bust, and the history that followed.

Part of that history is how silent cinema came to be viewed in Dawson City, first at the might D.A.A.A., or Dawson Amateur Athletic Association. As the city grew, its denizens lusted for entertainment. Morrison explains how the D.A.A.A. filled that void with sports, swimming, and more.

That “more” included a place to show films. Throughout “Dawson City,” Morrison cuts to clips from silent cinematic works that once entertained the residents. He gives us the staggering statistic that 75 percent of silent films have been lost, and as we watch, we realize something extraordinary: Were it not for an errant bulldozer, the films in “Frozen Time” would never have been seen again.

Some of the names and faces in the documentary are well known to us. Some, like Jack London and director William Desmond Taylor, are seen only in photographs. A few are seen in the silent films and newsreels, including Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers. Even cinephiles might be unaware of the likes of Alice Guy-Blaché, noted as the one of the first directors to make a narrative film.

The general concept of the documentary -- piecing together an essential period of North American history through its cinema -- is bold. The footage from the films is predictably wondrous, but what makes “Dawson City” so successful is Morrison’s editing.

In his hands, “Frozen Time” is like a tour of the twentieth century -- the fever dream of the Gold Rush, strikes, war, destruction, progress, and, of course, cinema. How fitting that films literally became part of the city’s landscape.

While it is a bit overlong, and it is saddled with a clunky, yawner of a title, “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a truly important effort. It is also genuinely haunting. Many of the silent films have suffered water damage, lending an otherworldly, ghost-like touch to the visuals. How fitting, as “Dawson City” is, indeed, a North American ghost story.

MOVIE REVIEW

“Dawson City: Frozen Time”

3 ½ stars (out of 4)

Director: Bill Morrison

Running Time: 120 minutes

Rating: Not rated; equivalent to PG.

The bizarre true history of a collection of films dating from the 1910s to the 1920s is pieced together through rare silent films and newsreels, archival footage, interviews, and historical photographs.

 

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