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By Alan Scherstuhl
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The best video collection in New York was shipped to a Sicilian town with a promise that it would be kept accessible to cinephiles. Here's what really happened to it.
In April 2009, the Los Angeles Times wrote a profile on Mayor Sgarbi, reporting that the collection had arrived; a 10-second video on YouTube documented crowds enthusiastically greeting the shipping container.
And then . . . nothing. As far as I could tell, that was the last trace of Kim's Video in Salemi published on the Internet in English.
To outsiders, Vittorio Sgarbi's most visible accomplishment as mayor of Salemi was the creation of a new tourist attraction: the Museum of the Mafia. When novelist Edmund White visited the town in 2010, he described it as the "one place that was functioning perfectly."
When I arrived in Sicily in early June, an ad for the museum occupied a full wall at the Palermo airport's baggage claim. It read "Weekend in Salemi" above a graphic representation of the island of Sicily dripping with thick red blood.
Salemi is about 60 miles southwest of Palermo and 43 miles west of Corleone; connect the three points on a map, and you get a right triangle. It's a gorgeous region, compressing the highlights of Southern California's varied landscape—urban centers, coastline, farmland, mountains—into a comparatively small space.
My boyfriend and I had been traveling through Italy for a week by the time we got to Salemi. We had visited countless hilltop villages built around a relic or a church, with a couple of cobblestone streets boasting a half-dozen panini bars and little shops offering the same products (trinkets, artisanal pastas, pecorino). By all appearances, these villages existed to rake in tourism dollars. We started calling them Fortresses of Commerce.
So the first thing that was immediately conspicuous about Salemi was that it didn't seem to be designed to sell anything. It didn't seem to want visitors at all.
Filling every seat in front of the café and spilling out into the street, a couple dozen men congregated where we parked near the base of the hill leading up to Salemi's historic center. As we made our way from the car through the square, several seemed to eye us with suspicion.
To compare the streets leading to Salemi's hilltop to a ghost town wouldn't be quite right; in some pockets, it felt as if even the ghosts had moved on. Shutters were down on most of the stores. Nearly new-looking apartment complexes, pristine but silent, alternated with burned-out shells of multi-family homes or construction sites that appeared abandoned. This unfinished architecture overlooked a million-dollar view of the valley below, which put the top of Mulholland Drive to shame.
On that Saturday morning in early June, everything at the top of the hill seemed to be closed. The library was locked; the city museum, which apparently houses the Museum of the Mafia, had posted hours indicating it should be open, but it was not. The door to the police station was wide open, but there was no one to be found inside.
Back down the hill, the Office of Tourism was a one-room outfit manned by a local teenager who didn't speak English. Asked about Kim's Video, he looked confused, then produced a map of the town, on which he pointed out the Museum of Bread. He slid open a glass display case and pulled out an ornate Roman cross, made from what looked like ciabatta.
A sign on the side of the town bus stop advertised a URL and an e-mail address for the City of Salemi. Back at our hotel, I found that the website didn't exist. An e-mail to the address bounced back.
Later that day, at the only bar in Salemi's historic center, I met with David Moss, a British-born real estate agent who'd been living in northern Italy and was drawn to Salemi by Mayor Sgarbi's promise to sell earthquake-damaged homes (or really, the lots under them) to any and all comers for one euro apiece—on the condition that buyers also enter into a contract with the city to build a new home on the land.
The gambit didn't go as planned. "In true Italian fashion, they talked about it before it was a reality," Moss told me.
Moss did sell a few intact houses, but no house ever sold for one euro.
Moss remembered the arrival of Kim's videos three years before. They had come in a huge shipping container on a flatbed truck, which had no hope of making it through Salemi's steep hairpin turns. So the boxes had to be loaded first onto smaller vehicles—which still could only make it most of the way. Finally, they had to be carried by hand, box by box, up winding de Chirico–like streets to the city museum.
I told Moss what had happened at the Office of Tourism. He nodded, unsurprised: "They haven't gotten their act together in terms of what international tourism is all about."
The tourism office had tried to direct us to the bread museum, Moss said, because until Sgarbi came to town, that was the only thing in Salemi that drew visitors.
Sgarbi had interns and assistants cataloging, digitizing, and translating the videos, so each title could be archived and shown locally with Italian subtitles. They screened a number of films inside a castle on the hilltop before launching Centro Kim, a community center that two years before had opened with a gala party the whole town attended. It's at the bottom of the hill, Moss said, in the "new town center," which is where Salemi's population has been concentrated since the earthquake. That part of town is not even represented on the maps handed out at the tourist center.