Wednesday 20 September 2017

Sydney Underground Film Festival - Tina Kaufman unearths DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME (Bill Morrison, USA, 2017)

I saw this fabulous film at the Sydney Underground Film festival last weekend, a film by Bill Morrison (who I'm feeling guilty about not knowing, but I'm now going to chase up his work!).  Dawson City - Frozen Time, is about a hoard of silent film prints found in the late 70s during excavations in Dawson City, an old gold rush town in the Klondyke in Canada.

The filmmaker tells the fascinating story of Dawson City itself, using lots of archival material - old photographs, newspaper excerpts -from its heyday as gold was discovered and fortunes made, to its decline.  He tells how the films came to be dumped there, how they were found, and how they were rescued and restored. The film is filled with fascinating bits of information, such as how nitrate film was invented, and how it contributed to the many fires that burnt down buildings in Dawson City and of course elsewhere.

But it's the way in which he uses clips from the films that were discovered to illustrate the story in the most wonderful, hypnotic way that is so entrancing. Delirious silent film montages - beautiful clips in astonishingly good condition, apart from the traces of water damage that fray the sides of each clip to a greater or lesser extent - weave together a mad background to what is already a gripping story.

The treasure trove pool in Dawson City
Several hundred reels of volatile nitrate film from the 1910s and ’20s were discovered in the hoard, many presumed to be permanently lost. There were melodramas (The Mysterious Mrs M, The Halfbreed, Polly the Pirate, The Unpardonable Sin, and many others), there were newsreels and even films about frogs and flowers, and Morrison tells the story about the heady days when the town had three cinemas as well as much other entertainment, and how the town's decline meant that the film prints had actually been forgotten, buried underground at a time when their artistic or historical value was not even considered, and he weaves the films themselves beautifully into the story.

Dawson City - Frozen Time is an intricately structured, wonderfully absorbing film that tells a rich and involving history - I just hope it will turn up again soon.  I'm already dying to see it once more.

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