Video Paradiso: how an Italian town rescued a priceless film collection

55,000 videos threatened with oblivion find a new home with an oddball mayor
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The Independent Culture

Serendipity on a grand scale has found a new Sicilian home for a vast American video collection that was on the point of being broken up.

The story begins with Yongman Kim, a Korean immigrant in New York, who started a video rental business in a corner of his East Village dry-cleaning establishment in 1987. Over the years, it became his obsession, swelling to a total of 55,000 films covering every genre, and becoming a local fixture.

But with the advent of online DVD rental services such as Netflix, the ritual trip to the local video store began to die out and, eventually, Mr Kim reluctantly decided to close the shop. He offered to give away his entire collection to a person or institution who would agree to his three conditions: keep it intact, keep it up to date, and make it accessible to members of his video shop and others.

Offers began to come in, but none was able to guarantee all three requirements. The library seemed doomed. But word of Mr Kim's dilemma began to spread. When a devotee of the video store, called Glen Hyman, told the story over lunch to an Italian friend, a graphic designer called Franca Pauli, at her home in Treviso, near Venice, Ms Pauli had an inspired idea.

Years before, she had worked on Colors, the brilliantly unpredictable graphic magazine published by the clothing giant Benetton. The founder and editor of Colors was Oliviero Toscani, a mercurial photographer and designer responsible for a string of sensational advertising campaigns for Benetton. "He taught me a lot about communication and graphics," she said. "I have a lot of respect for him."

Mr Toscani's more celebrated campaigns included a black woman suckling a white baby and Aids patients, but when he photographed Death Row inmates in a jail in Kentucky wearing Benetton jumpers, the state took offence and sued the company on the grounds that Mr Toscani had not obtained the necessary permissions. Benetton lost the case and had to pay a large fine, and in the ensuing row Mr Toscani and Benetton parted company. Franca Pauli left Colors at the same time.

Now, nearly a decade later, Glen Hyman's mention of the Kim Video library got Ms Pauli thinking. Last year, in a bizarre political manoeuvre, the ancient Sicilian town of Salemi had voted a dandyish art critic called Vittorio Sgarbi as its new mayor.

A former talk-show host, founder of the short-lived "Party of Beauty", ex-under-secretary at the Ministry of Culture, Mr Sgarbi has reinvented public service as a sort of Dada performance, and though few of his jobs have lasted for very long, they have always been interesting. He lost his TV job after punching a guest, was sacked from the Ministry of Culture for noisy dissent, was sent on his way by the mayor of Milan for more of the same, and finally fetched up in the little town of Salemi where his celebrity (and solid Christian Democrat credentials) got him elected.

It was clear from the start that Mr Sgarbi would not be a conventional mayor, and he proved it by offering houses in the ancient but depressed town, heavily damaged by an earthquake in 1968, for sale at €1 each to owners who agreed to restore them. He also appointed a raft of unlikely people to municipal jobs: a Sicilian prince as head of town planning, an avant-garde Roman artist as "councillor for nothing", and his close friend, Oliviero Toscani, as councillor for creativity.

Franca Pauli, intrigued by her old teacher's new incarnation, had flown down to Salemi for his inauguration. When Glen Hyman told her that Mr Kim's unparalleled video collection risked becoming homeless it occurred to her that the town could be the perfect destination. Much working of telephones and sending of emails later, all parties agreed. None of the American offers to rehouse the library had satisfied Mr Kim, but Salemi, he decided, would do fine.

It may have been the scale of Mr Toscani's ambitions that persuaded him: the video collection is far from the limit of his new ideas for the town. At Benetton, Mr Toscani had formed a cell of young artists called Fabrica to come up with creative ideas of every sort. Last November, from his new "department for creativity", he launched a similar initiative, selecting 20 young artists from the island to join him in the town, providing them with food and lodging and little else and encouraging them to set their imaginations free. "We chose them for their talent and capacity," he said yesterday.

"It's an arts workshop. So far they've produced a manifesto on violence against women, projected a festival on human rights, designed a project on obesity, another on differentiated rubbish collection, another on illiteracy, a daily programme on the news for a TV music channel. We're working on a four-page newspaper which will be offered as an insert to national papers; maybe The Independent would be interested?"

Whatever Mr Kim's reasons, the deal was done. And so, sometime about 10 March, a container lorry will lumber into Salemi bearing American gifts. It will park in the main piazza because the steep and winding medieval streets are too narrow for it to proceed further. Then Franca Pauli and friends, along with Mr Toscani's artists, will form a human chain to transfer Mr Kim's painstakingly catalogued collection to the 17th-century former Jesuit college which will be its new home.

What will happen to them after that? Mr Toscani is a geyser of ideas, and his plans include the "Never-ending festival", a 24-hour projection of several films at once which would continue for 11 years. Closely involved in the project will be Fondazione Clio, an arts foundation launched by Franca Pauli, which will take charge of that festival and develop other uses for the collection: sub-titling them, for example, converting the VHS videos to DVD, and putting them on the internet.

"We are negotiating an agreement with a major Italian cinematic institution to manage the project," she said. "But I'm not yet free to reveal which one. Ideas in discussion include a film festival at Salemi."

Glen Hyman, the former customer who brought word of the collection across the Atlantic, will have the job of making sure it is kept up to date.

Highlights of the collection

Stranger than Paradise

Black-and-white 1984 comedy in three acts, directed by the cult American director Jim Jarmusch. Centres on the arrival of a Hungarian cousin at the home of a New York hipster and their journey to Ohio and Florida. Stars John Lurie.

The Spirit of the Beehive

Spanish director Victor Erice's 1973 debut, about a six-year-old girl's obsession with the Frankenstein story soon after the end of the civil war. A quiet masterpiece.

My Best Friend's Birthday

Directed by Quentin Tarantino, a 16mm black-and-white slapstick comedy shot by Tarantino and his co-writerCraig Hamann over four years from 1984 on a budget of $5,000. Reduced from 70 to 36 minutes after being damaged in a fire, it was never officially released.

Bloody Sword of the 99th Virgin

Japanese sexploitation movie directed by Morihei Magatani and starring the swaggering Bunta Sugawara. Released in 1959, it tells the story of a mountain town whose residents capture passing virgins for torture and sacrifice.