Dawson City is a remote outpost, deep in the rugged Yukon and not far from the Arctic Circle. Nevertheless, it was a veritable boomtown in the late 1800s and early 1900s after gold was found there. At its peak, tens of thousands moved to Dawson City in the hopes of striking it rich. As with most boomtowns, though, the town’s fortunes waned, and it now has a population of only about 1,000. Dawson City might have just been a footnote in Gold Rush history if it were not for the treasure trove of silent films found there in the 1970s, long forgotten.
Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that spans the rise and fall of the town, as well as the history of the film archive unearthed there. The films include everything from old silent movies, long feared lost, to newsreels featuring landmark historical events of the time, including the infamous 1919 World Series.
What I found the most interesting about this film was that it is not a conventional documentary. I don’t think I am unusual in expecting a documentary to feature a significant amount of interviews or voiceover to provide the narrative.
With Dawson City, however, the only interviews happen in the very beginning and the very end. The rest unfolds like a silent movie, juxtaposing clips from the silent movies and historical photographs with a stunning soundtrack and text in place of narrative. So, the documentary about silent movies is, itself, a silent movie in a way, and the result is unusual, haunting, and mesmerizing.
I don’t know that this documentary will necessarily appeal to everyone. The almost complete lack of sound other than the music could weird some out, but it’s a fascinating journey through Gold Rush and film history and functions almost like a time capsule of an interesting time and place in Canadian history. It is well worth watching for those who enjoy documentaries about history and films. Or film history. 🙂
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What’s your favorite documentary? Do you like silent movies? What have you been watching lately? Tell us in the comments!