The remote Yukon community of Dawson City doesn’t sound like a hotbed of cinematic activity. A town that was founded during the boom of the Klondike gold rush, it was a place where economic highs and depressions came and went with great speed and force; a community comprised of people trying to stake a claim or profit somehow from the thousands of people who passed through. At the height of the gold rush in the early twentieth century, the still relatively diminutive Dawson City was home to several movie houses that catered to clientele that were desperate for entertainment options that didn’t involve gambling. For many production companies and studios, Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. If a film print – still made from degradable, flammable, and volatile nitrate stock in those days – made its way to Dawson City, it often stayed there because no one wanted to pick up the tab to ship the print back to its original source.

In 1977, cinematic history was literally unearthed in Dawson City when a bulldozer operator and city leader discovered a film print burial ground of sorts beneath what used to be the local rec centre. With no room to store over five hundred film prints dating back to the 1910s and 1920s, a local theatre owner decided to use the movies as landfill in the 1930s. Miraculously, some of these films – many long thought lost to the sands of time – were in decent shape.

The artful, scholarly, and austere documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time finds filmmaker Bill Morrison looking back at the history of the community and underlining significance of this discovery. With nearly 75% of all films from the early silent era lost forever because of warehouse fires, deterioration, or simply because they were carelessly tossed away, the Dawson City find was a cause for celebration, and unlike any cinematic archeological discoveries before or since. It’s impossible to quantify just how many films were lost after the advent of “talkies,” but the Dawson City discovery was certainly heartening to preservationists, historians, and archivists.

Morrison, as gifted of an artist as he is an archivist, had previously created a gorgeous, meditative pastiche from old nitrate film prints with his experimental 2002 documentary Decasia, but he sticks to a more standard sort of narrative for Dawson City: Frozen Time. To give viewers a better understanding of Dawson City, Morrison goes all the way back to the town’s inception and the indigenous peoples who lived there before the gold rush. Much of the first half of the film is an exhaustive history of Dawson City, which called itself home to dozens of artistic and entrepreneurial legends over its early years. It was a town that suffered numerous hardships (with its downtown core routinely burning to the ground every several years) and a largely transient population that went further west if it looked like the gold was drying up, but there was always a demand for entertainment among those hearty souls who stuck around. In many ways, Dawson City: Frozen Time is more about the town than the films that were found in it.

Dawson City: Frozen Time adopts a style somewhere between a coffee table book, a PBS documentary, and one of the many newsreels that were found in the town’s previously hidden landfill. Preferring on screen titles to voiceover narration, Morrison lays the stories of the town out in a poetic, but still straightforward fashion. Stitching together footage from films found in Dawson City, other movies of the era, newspaper articles, and stills, Morrison rarely takes the viewer out of the city’s boom period and stops briefly at intervals to provide necessary historical contexts, and only adds sound (outside of Alex Somers gorgeous score) at appropriate moments.

Morrison isn’t afraid to get anecdotal with Dawson City: Frozen Time, and he’ll sometimes go off and create well linked montages of footage from the era to create something a bit more artistic. A lot of these anecdotes are likeable and fascinating, but at a full two hours, the film does start to grate and become repetitive as it moseys along. A lengthy sequence that shows clips of many films found in Dawson City only exists to tell the viewer the exact release date the movie in question had in the town, and while that’s initially interesting, it rapidly dissolves into overkill. Morrison seems so keen on being comprehensive here that he frequently lapses into indulgence and lack of artistic restraint.

Much like the wide range of cinematic history and the town’s economic roots, not everything to be found in Dawson City: Frozen Time is gold, but as a work of pure, unfiltered scholarship it has a lot to educate and entrance. If you find yourself tuning out during some of Morrison’s more long winded asides about any number of historical incidents in Dawson City, fret not. There’s probably something more to your tastes arriving shortly. Morrison’s film follows a distinct time-line, and like most great histories it evolves and expands in continually unexpected ways.

It should also go without saying that the chance to glimpse some of these forgotten films is a delight for any moviegoer. Not everything in Dawson City: Frozen Time feels like it’s meant to be viewed in a single, comprehensive sitting as Morrison has presented here, but all of it has a place in history. It’s like shooting the breeze with a really knowledgeable cinematic librarian for a couple of hours.

Is Dawson City: Frozen Time essential viewing?

If you love cinema, absolutely. Quibbles about length aside, Morrison has done justice to one of the most fascinating and unprecedented historical discoveries in the history of cinema. You’ll never see another film like this.

Dawson City: Frozen Time opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.

Dawson City: Frozen Time Trailer