The Italian Odyssey

In 2009, the proprietor of one of the top video stores in the United States, Mondo Kim's Video, bequeathed his collection of 55,000-plus titles to a small town in Sicily, which pledged to keep them “accessible” to visiting cinephiles. The videos' arrival in Sicily was chronicled online and in the L.A. Times. But, as L.A. Weekly Film Writer Karina Longworth reported, that was the last trace of the project in English on the Internet. So she set out — to Sicily! — to find out what happened. The result was last week's cover story, “Video Paradiso.”

Readers loved the tale. Writes Geoff Gardner of Australia, “Thanks so much for that great story about Kim's and Sicily. The paragraphs you wrote about the single car outside the building and the languid young man emerging from behind closed doors reminded me so much of similar events when my wife and I wandered around Sicily in 2004. The so-called museums were all operated in similar fashion. Signs saying it's open, doors locked, someone emerging after minutes of knocking and eventually some perfunctory tour being allowed because the person in charge is 'away today.' Aah, what memories.”

James van Maanen agrees. “Thank you for taking the time to research this, go there and check up in person, and then write such an interesting piece. Often, as my companion and I are watching an Italian film, he'll turn to me and ask, 'Why do they do that?' or 'How can that be happening?' I try to explain that that's how they do (or don't do) things in Italy. But now, I can give him your article to read — so he'll better understand. Keep up the good work!”

The store's proprietor, Yongman Kim, also got in touch. “Although I feel this article is written unfairly and somewhat biased, I will take it as is,” he writes. “However, for the future and FYI, some of your points need to be corrected.

“First, my film screening was not a pay-screening deal. It was strictly a Cinema Village pick-up for two weeks. Secondly, I began to seek an institution that would accept my simple three conditions for the collection from July 'til the end of December. I drove to Wesleyan University, to Long Island St. John's University, and many other institutions in New York City. The offers from most of them were so disappointing, like a 'pick and choose' deal. However, to Columbia University, I donated 38,000 titles one year prior to the donation to Italy.

“As for the arresting incident, you should have done more research on this. An underground musician sold his CDs that we distributed through independent marketing channels. Once he became a mainstream artist, his collection that he'd sold to us previously unknowingly became bootleg.” He concludes, “I do appreciate your effort, which should stimulate the people in Salemi into making progress as they promised.

We also got a fascinating letter from Ian Zurzulo, an American who visited Salemi during the videos' arrival and met the volunteers working with then-Mayor Vittorio Sgarbi to revitalize the town.

The volunteers, Zurzulo writes, came in with high hopes, but found themselves disappointed by working conditions — and by just how far Salemi was from the big city. He writes, “I would soon realize that the mixture of genuine excitement and cynicism by the volunteers concerning the project was present in the locals as well. After all, what do villagers with a peasant history want with art-house cinema? How could they possibly relate to such esoteric films?

“Yet, on the day of the videos' arrival, Mr. Kim was celebrated like a hero, as if Garibaldi himself rose from the grave to set foot in Salemi once again. Mr. Kim's mythic status preceding the arrival elevated to sainthood on this day, despite never having been in Italy previously once in his life! Led by a vociferous group of teenagers, the entire town flooded the central piazza for the ceremonial opening of the shipping containers that held the mysterious film collection within. As the moment approached, the kids began to applaud and chant 'Forza Salemi! Forza Kim!' in front of a large rainbow-colored billboard with the inscription Salemi — Citta Internazionale di Cinema. Mayor Sgarbi took advantage of the photo op and launched himself into the fray, sending the young girls of Salemi into a frenzy as he frolicked and posed for the cameras.

“The truck finally arrived, and the energy circulating through the piazza swelled. … The old men lost themselves in the throbbing piazza and screamed 'Kim!' out loud in an eruption of senseless joy. While the people of Salemi may never understand the crafted chaos of Mayor Sgarbi and Mr. Toscani or fully embrace their absurd ambitions, they forgave them for this one day at least and sensed that something unprecedented was happening in their once-forgotten town.

“In a stroke of genius, the event coordinators harnessed everyone's manic energy and managed to convince the townspeople to escort the boxes of films by hand through a human chain linked from the downtown piazza, up through the winding streets and to the top of the hill. I joined in, carrying countless boxes throughout the afternoon, and found myself caught up in the excitement, unsure of why I was celebrating.

Moving the films to Sicily was a fantasy, one I thankfully got to live in person, but it was always unrealistic for the project to survive in the long term. Whatever happens to it, Mr. Kim and his collection will forever be mythical in my mind! Thanks for bringing back old memories with your article!”

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