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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.
None of the locals who gathered around us at the bar to chat had heard about anything happening at the Centro or with the videos in some time.
"The last time I saw the collection, it was in a room off to the side in the Civic Museum," Moss said. "That was two years ago."
Heineken in hand, Paulo, a thirtysomething guy with hair slicked back and dark shades at dusk—like the Bono of Salemi—pulled up a chair next to me. I asked Moss if Sgarbi's "foundation," as he'd called it, still existed in any tangible way. Moss posed the question to Paulo.
He shrugged. "Invisibile," he said. He punctuated the air with a finger and made a "pop" sound with his mouth.
Moss translated: "Like a bubble of soap."
"The problem with Salemi is the Mafia," boomed the thickly accented voice on the other end of the line. On the day after I'd met with David Moss, the town's former Alderman of Creativity, Oliviero Toscani, called my hotel in Salemi. He was eager to air grievances. "When I say 'Mafia,'" he cautioned, "don't think of those American movies. Mafia is just a big bureaucracy."
Toscani himself left Salemi in late 2009 after finally falling out with Mayor Sgarbi and writing off Sicily as a "beautiful, damned land."
Toscani's feelings about Sicily, though poetically stated, are not exactly fringe. The island is earning a reputation as "the Greece of Italy," in no small part because of towns like Salemi, which drain funds from the national government without having much to show for it.
Two and a half years after Toscani left, in February 2012, Sgarbi himself stepped down, under accusations that he had allowed his administration to become infiltrated by the Mafia.
"If you're a politician in western Sicily, you really have to have some kind of connections, unless you're a crusader, someone who insists on having clean hands," UCLA's Agnew tells me. While Sgarbi initially presented himself as anti-Mafia, he adds, "that wasn't the way it was at all."
In fact, Sgarbi had been propped up by "Pino" Giammarinaro, Agnew says, "a quite famous fixer from about 30 to 40 years ago. He was the guy who linked together national politics, Mafia, local politics, and the health system—clinics, hospitals, and so on. These are big sources of money coming from Rome, which you can cream off, which is really what the Mafia are interested in."
Days after the mayor's resignation, Toscani sent an impassioned letter to the Sicilian president. It was printed in Italian newspapers with the headline "Save the Treasure of Salemi."
Toscani described his instrumental role in bringing the collection to Salemi and warned, "Now this treasure of over 55,000 titles is rotting, surrounded by mice, and the project is at risk of being ruined forever."
The City of Salemi promptly issued a press release disputing Toscani's claims. "The archive of film is intact and maintained under the best conditions," Vice Mayor Antonella Favuzza insisted. "[Toscani] has nothing to do with this archive."
Over the phone that day in June, Toscani kept intoning, "I wish I had those videos," with an obsessive intensity reminiscent of a supervillain, but he wouldn't admit any responsibility for the "bureaucracy" that had stopped the Kim's project in its tracks.
"Nothing is going on with those videos. All the videos are rotting in a Salemi room in mice shit," he lamented.
I asked him about the vice mayor's statement disputing such claims. "She's a mafioso!" Toscani said. "She's a good liar!"
I later tracked down the woman who had first alerted Toscani to the collection, Franca Pauli. Over Skype, she fired back at his claims. "If it was rotting, it was because of him!" she said.
Pauli had served as the mediator between the town of Salemi and Kim. Her husband, Dario, had gone to Manhattan to pack the boxes himself, and the couple even fronted the $15,000 to pay for the slow-boat shipping in early 2009.
Pauli says that while the videos were traveling across the Atlantic, Toscani had insisted she meet with his assistant, who'd tried to persuade her to divert the collection to Toscani's office in Pisa, so they could start a business streaming the videos on Amazon—copyright regulations be damned, apparently. She had protested: They had made a promise to the people of Salemi and to Kim. "Don't worry about all that," the assistant had said. "You just have to convince Mr. Kim that Salemi is a bad place."
After she'd refused to take part in this scheme, Pauli says, "Toscani was much colder with me."
Later that year, Pauli signed on to help organize a festival of Iranian films—only for the city to cancel the budget she had been promised. "I had worked on this festival for two months, and I found myself with no money and like, 10 Iranian people asking me for money. It was really a nightmare. So at that point, I had to say, 'Enough.'"
As of January 2010, when Pauli last visited Salemi, "still no one had done anything to the collection."
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