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Obituary: Sam without the cannon

23 September 2010

Sam Kula, Obituary

By Jerome Kuehl

Sam Kula was the only archivist ever to mobilize the Canadian Air Force to save moving images. The episode came about when in 1978 a cache of nitrate film was discovered buried in permafrost in an indoor swimming pool in Dawson City, Yukon. Sam, who was then Director of the National Film, Television, and Sound archives Division at the National Archives of Canada, realized that once freed from the swimming pool, the 507 reels would swiftly deteriorate. Since no commercial airliners dared to carry a ton of decomposing nitrate, he bullied the Department of National Defence into providing an Air Force Hercules to carry the film from Whitehorse to Ottawa, where it could be cared for.

This would have been enough to secure his eternal fame in the archiving world, but there was far more to him than this Indiana Jones exploit might lead his many admirers to suspect. He graduated from Concordia University in Montreal, then studied at the University of Southern California. He taught at USC, Concordia, and Carleton University.

In 1958, He became deputy to Ernest Lindgren, first director of the British Film Institute and always maintained close links with his London colleagues, but was turned down when he applied for the post as director. In view of the fate which has befallen that institution they are probably still kicking themselves for their lack of foresight.

He then went to the United States, to organize the archival programme for the American Film Institute, an unwieldy bureaucracy which was funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, an even more unwieldy bureaucracy. Later He served on the executive committee of FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives and FIAT, the International Federation of Television Archives—two more mind bending bureaucracies.

Sam felt that the challenge of preserving the world's audio-visual heritage transcended national boundaries, but he must have longed for the days when his biggest problem was dealing with disintegrating Nitrate in a swimming pool.

In 1968, together with Norman Jewison he founded and served as the first director of theCanadian Centre for Advanced Film Studies in Toronto, the first professional training institute for Canadian filmmakers, and the closest institution Canada had as an equivalent for a National Film and Television School. He was made head of the National Film, Television and Sound archives at the Canadian National Archives in 1973, a post he held until 1989.

In 1991, he was elected president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. AMIA was, and remains, a largely US dominated organisation, but Sam was so successful in steering it that he was re-elected for a second term. Sam was involved first as an advisor, than a board member of the AV Preservation Trust, a non-profit organisation set up in 1996 to promote access to Canada's audio-visual heritage and was instrumental in establishing its annual Masterworks awards which antedated FOCAL's own awards ceremony by many years.

In 2006 he won the 'Silver Light' award, given annually by AMIA to those who have made an outstanding contribution to archives and archiving. He was a prolific writer, but two influential books stand out: The Archival Appraisal of Moving Images: a RAMP (records and archives management programme) Study with Guidelines. UNESCO 1983, which can be consulted at www.unesco.org/webworld/ramp/html/r9006e/r9006e0j.htm and Appraising Moving Images: Assessing the Archival and Monetary Value of Film and Video Records, Lanham, Maryland and Oxford: Scarecrow Press, 2002. vii, 155 pp., $40.00 ISBN 0-8108-4368-4.

There was never any question of his formally retiring or resting on his laurels. A few weeks ago he decided not to write a piece for A-Z, and we all wondered about this, since he was always eager to proselytize on behalf of the archives he knew and loved. Now we know why he was, for once, silent. We will miss him.

He died on September 8 at the age of 77. He is survived by his wife, Bunty (Eleanor), his brother Morris, his daughters Helen Dolenko and Jocelyn Kula, and his grandchildren Harriet and Lucy Dolenk