Sam Kula, the Director of the National Archives of Canada’s Audiovisual Archives from 1973-1989, who died of cancer on September 8th, is someone I’m proud to have known and worked with. I first met Sam when we were both graduate students at the University of Southern California’s Division of Cinema back in the 1960s, when we were both pursuing PhDs. He was several years my senior and had come to USC after a stint at the British Film Institute.
We both dropped out to take jobs at the American Film Institute, in Washington, D.C., during its early years where he headed its Archive program and became my boss; initially I was Associate Editor of the AFI Catalog before Sam sent me to New York City as Manager of their short-lived Film Information System. The latter position called for a librarian, but Sam wanted one with my particular knowledge; so even though I lacked a library degree at the time, I got the job. Also working under Sam at the time was David Shepard (he was Film Preservation Officer) whose Film Preservation Associates currently produces some of the most significant historical DVDs around.
I left the AFI when the Institute closed down its New York office and I gradually lost touch with Sam. Some years later, I eventually returned to USC to finish my PhD and learned that he too had tried to do the same, but for reasons I’m not clear about decided not to. (I do recall some disparaging remarks by a faculty member putting Sam down for being a mere archivist and not being active enough as a film scholar!)
After I started occasionally attending the Ottawa International Animation Festival , I learned that Sam would sometimes show up, but regretfully I never made the extra effort to see him, which is my loss.
His most noted accomplishment at the National Archives, aside from setting up its Film, Sound and Television section was, as Luke McKernan pointed out on his Bioscope blog, was the major role he played
in the discovery, care and historiography of the extraordinary discovery of over 500 reels of silent film that were found in 1978 underneath a boarded-up swimming pool in Dawson City in the Yukon Territory, where the films had been buried in the permafrost (ideal archival conditions) for forty-nine years. The story of the find … is the film archivist’s romantic tale par excellence, and alone serves as memorial to one of world audiovisual archiving’s most dedicated servants.
For more on this, check out Sam’s article about it in Archivaria, the journal of the Association of Canadian Archivists, which was adapted from an article in American Film.
Photo by Lois Siegel.
Last update: January 29, 2017.