The Strange Fate of Kim's Video

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.

Before last week, Kim told me, he hadn't even heard from Salemi in more than a year. His last visit there was for the gala opening. He remembers giving an hour-long speech in Salemi. "Everybody gave me a warm welcome," Kim bragged to me. "They loved my speech."

That day in 2010, Sgarbi had cemented Kim's devotion by introducing him to Italian filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti, whose 1962 cult classic, Mondo Cane, was the namesake of Mondo Kim's, and also to "Sgarbi's personal friend," a media mogul from Rome who had pledged 2 million euro to launch in Salemi a month-long arts festival built around Kim's collection. Kim says he was kept in the loop about that project, but "then he seemed to have some financial problems. So this has been discontinued for the past year and a half."

Then, suddenly, progress. Perhaps.

Photograph by Rian Johnson
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.
Courtesy Castelvetrano News Italy
Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi and Yongman Kim had expansive (if strange) plans.

Just before she fled Salemi, Pauli told me, she'd applied for 700,000 euros in public funds to support initiatives in Salemi. The application was eventually accepted, but the money had been mysteriously frozen for two years. Now, Pauli says, the money has somehow been freed up. Although most of Sgarbi's other projects were scrapped, Kim's was approved—or, at least, enough funds were targeted to bring the movie theater at the Kim's Center up to code, to bring in digitization equipment, and to shelve and catalog the collection.

UCLA's Agnew thinks Toscani's February media blitz might have driven some type of protective action—if only temporarily. "I suspect someone in Palermo decided that it would be politically really problematic if this got out that they'd taken these films from this poor guy in New York and then essentially just left them lying around to decay, you know? In that sense, there's likely to be some attention paid to these things but only so long as it's in the news. The minute something slips off even the third or fourth page of the newspaper, I think, it wouldn't be a priority anymore."

Throughout our conversation, Kim is weirdly cheerful about the state of affairs in Salemi. "I'm so curious to see how much has been done," he says. "If they have my whole collection digitized, oh, boy! That would be awesome."

Given the troubled history of the venture—and his still-unmet "condition" that its owners provide "access to Kim's members"—his obstinate sunniness almost seems delusional.

Maybe ignorance is bliss. Kim says he never heard about Toscani's allegations that the collection was rotting and wasn't aware Sgarbi had left Salemi until that day. But when he didn't hear anything in more than a year, wasn't he worried?

"No, I don't worry," he says. "I've never given up hope. . . . I'm so happy to hear suddenly they had something done."

Maybe Kim continues to have hope in Salemi because it has been such a good place for his ego; from Garibaldi to Sgarbi, the place has functioned as a blank slate for men who were legends in their own minds to act out their fantasies.

But even Pauli, who is nothing if not a realist about Salemi, feels a ray of hope. She remembers initially sensing skepticism bordering on hostility from Salemi's locals regarding the "celebrities" of the Sgarbi administration and their splashy projects, "because they didn't have streetlights and waste disposal, yet money was being spent on these festivals."

At one point, Sgarbi brought in a French urban-design specialist who demanded they outfit the streetlights with eco-friendly bulbs. The city removed the bad bulbs but took two weeks to replace them. "During that time," Pauli says, "two people were stabbed in dark alleys."

Things are different now that Sgarbi and friends are out of the picture. "I don't think it's over," Pauli says. "I think there is a chance for another Kim's Video adventure."

When I told VHS curator Yuzna about my experience in Italy, he sighed. "It's kind of a little bit of what I expected, I have to admit," he says. "In a way, it adds to the legend of Kim's. Because there were so many stories about it—who knows where the truth ends and the fiction begins. That's part of the reason why it's such an iconic part of New York history."

The videos' strange Italian odyssey might add to Mondo Kim's legend—and maybe adding to that legend is what Mr. Kim had in mind all along. Still, it's hard not to mourn for what could have been had the collection remained in New York. As Perry puts it, if the New York institutions that refused to meet Kim's demands knew the alternative, "they would have just been like, 'Fine, we'll take it' and then put the five copies of Old School in a box in the basement."

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