From the Rental Era to the Big Screen: The Story of Kim’s Video and Music in the Documentary by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon

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For about ten years, the small Sicilian town of Salemi, in Italy, possessed one of the largest and most well-stocked collections of VHS and DVD films in the world. To understand this history, we need to go back a bit. First of all, we have to understand where this vast film collection came from. I had the chance to talk to Yongman Kim, founder of Kim’s Video and Music, a film and music rental shop that used to be based in Manhattan, and Ashley Sabin, director with David Redmon of Kim’s Video, the documentary that traces the history of this mythological video store, considered the Mecca for niche films and music.

The History of Kim’s Video and Music

Yongman Kim is a Korean-born entrepreneur who came to the US in 1979 after doing his military service. Initially, he opened a dry cleaning business, where he had the idea of providing some bootlegged VHSs for rent. This idea became a success and he opened the first Kim’s Video and Music location in 1987. In the following years Mr. Kim opened a total of eleven locations, the most famous of which was the one located in St. Marks Place that held 55,000 films. At the height of its success Kim’s Video owned over 100,000 titles between all its shops, many of which were hard-to-find, international or rare films. In this way Kim’s Video and Music became a landmark for Big Apple cinephiles.

When I asked Mr. Kim what prompted him to open these shops, he answered: “I wanted to do a different kind of video shop, not like the blockbusters which were basically generic video shops. I wanted to make more films available for my customers (…) I collected titles from almost all over the world. I went to film school and learnt a lot about the best titles, but they were not available in video libraries. Even in my school library they were not available. So I concentrated on independent, underground and forum films”. In 2003, the FBI raided Kim’s Video because Mr. Kim made copies of films on VHS and then rented them out. They took all the films but within a week Mr. Kim returned with more new films to fill the shelves again. Redmon tells in the documentary “One of the films Mr Kim bootlegged was Godard’s Histoire du Cinéma, an essay film as a collage of images. There is a scene in which Godard’s face is superimposed on paintings. Jean Luc Godard’s lawyers sent them a cease-and-desist letter, but I am proud that he has made it available to people. The law said: ownership counts, but we said: knowledge of the film counts more”.

Today it is easy for us to think that we can easily reach any film thanks to the numerous streaming platforms, but in the 1980s it was different: “When I started in 1987 there were no cinemas available from the East. China, Japan, but also the eastern block of European countries like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria and Russia” Mr. Kim told me. So he tried to fill these holes. Moreover, since Mr. Kim attended a film school and experimented with directing himself, he realized that there are probably millions of filmmakers shouting out films that will end up in a garage, doomed to disappear. So, in addition to the desire to make international cinema known, the idea of disseminating amateur films convinced him to open Kim’s Video. “They had so much that you couldn’t find anywhere. You know, bootlegs of things that didn’t exist, that never had come out on VHS or DVD” says a former member of Kim’s Video in the film.

The St. Marks branch of Kim’s Video, image from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/movies/kims-video-closes-and-a-village-sensibility-dies.html 13/06/24, 12.40

Unfortunately, in 2008, Yongman Kim was forced to announce the closure of his empire. There were several reasons for this: partly related to the spread of piracy, and secondly to the change in the way films were enjoyed and the opening of streaming platforms. In those years, the Internet was becoming widespread and, moreover, in 2008, Netflix went from being a DVD and video game rental company to being an on-demand online streaming service, accessible via subscription. I asked Mr. Kim what he thought of streaming platforms now, as they were complicit in the closure of his shops: “The new technologies have been taking over the conventional video rental and entertainment industry for more than ten years now. This is a trend that most people have adapted. I’m not interested in being against it. However my problem is that the allure of major video stores pretty dominated the industry and Kim’s Video tried to fight this allure of junk movies. I don’t see anyone who is doing the same these days. ”

In 2008, Mr. Kim made a public announcement about the donation of the collection housed in the most famous St Marks Place. More than forty institutions, including the renowned New York University applied, but out of all of them he chose the small Sicilian municipality of Salemi, Italy. Salemi promised not only to build a space for the collection where it could be stored and made available to the community, but also to digitize it entirely with public funds. In addition, they promised that the former members of the video library would have free access to the collection and to this end the municipality would make beds available in the city so that they could visit whenever they wanted. The closure of Kim’s Video was a bereavement for many, one member at the time tells in the documentary “It was like a friend moving away but more worse because we knew that we’d never see it again. We also knew that it was probably just going to disappear”. The sadness was also compounded by bureaucratic matters: with the closure all members were required to pay their late fees and some had very high ones, such as the Coen brothers. “Maybe because they were too busy filming A Serious Man at the time” jokes a former employee of the shop in the documentary. 

Journey to Sicily: how Redmon and Sabin have traced the collection

Ashley Sabin told me that she and Redmon started from this very point for their film: “We were members [of Kim’s Video and Music] when we were living in New York many years ago and when we found out that the collection was going to be donated to a small town in Sicily I contacted an estate agent because they were selling one euro houses”. The purchase did not go through but when I asked her what led them to tell this story she answered: “Being former members of that space that was disappearing but was so critical to our development as filmmakers was a big impetus of why we wanted to tell this story to try to understand the value of a place like that is even more important now that those places very rarely exist in the world. I would say that, you know, the sort of seeking out of that space is our desire to keep it alive and not have it all die”. 

Kim’s Video is a mix of documentary and archive film: scenes filmed by Redmon and Sabin in live are interspersed with continuous film fragments, some of which we easily recognise for their monumentality, others more niche. This device creates a magnificent connection that convinces us that reality is inherently cinematic. Kim’s Video’s story has the power to strike a particular chord with the cinephiles of the 1980s and 1990s. For them, in fact, video libraries were places to find a different kind of education and training. Their extinction was a sad evolution of the natural course of events but in a way it left all these people orphans. 

Directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, image from https://variety.com/2023/film/news/kims-video-sundance-1235494217/amp/ 13/06/24, 12.20 

Once arrived in Italy, the fate of the St Marks Place collection of Kim’s Video became entwined with Italian politics and maybe with the Mafia. Incredibly, its story merges with its contents and it is also because it sounds like the plot of a film that Sabin and Redmon felt the need to tell it. It is a process that has lasted many years, to the point that there have been times when the filmmakers themselves were unsure whether the story would end successfully. And it has included many people, like the Italian politician Vittorio Sgarbi, at the time mayor of Salemi. He is the one we see, in Sabin and Redmon’s documentary, opening the safeties of the containers that contained the collection with a shear in February 2009. Fewer people than the members of the video library in New York are there to welcome it. Salemi is a small town of 9,000 inhabitants, sparsely populated by young people due to their mass movement to larger cities, attributable to globalization. Salemi is also a town that was sadly devastated by an earthquake in the 1960s, and has since seen one building site and reconstruction after another. It is precisely in this context of renewal that Sgarbi himself placed the acquisition of the collection. Public funds were not only to finance the creation of a space for VHS and DVDs and their digitisation, but also a series of other activities for the benefit of the community. 

On 27 July 2017 at ten o’clock in the morning David arrived in Salemi, he was determined to track down the collection and exploit the promise made to him as well as to all the other members of Kim’s Video. Arriving in the main square, he has a hard time finding anyone who can understand him, in fact no one speaks English, not even in the tourist office. With the help of the Chief of Police, the only person who knows the language a little, he reaches the collection office. When he manages to enter in the place where the collection was stored what he sees is very different from his expectations. The rooms are in a state of disrepair: the material is still in boxes, badly stacked on top of each other, some VHS packages are empty. In some of the boxes, water has even fallen from the ceiling, due to seepage. It is a horrific scene, like a crime scene: David shows us in religious silence the state of VHS and DVDs until this dismay is interrupted by the building alarm, which forces him to abandon everything and run away. 

From that moment on, David thought only about one thing: he must bring the collection back to New York and restore it to the importance it deserves. After returning to New York from Salemi, he started watching one film after another, looking for ideas: “The more movies I watched, the more I began thinking about the overlap between art, crime and cinema”. In particular, he was struck by the film There is a Criminal Touch to Art, a 16mm documentary directed by Marina Abramovich in which the artist Ulay steals Hitler’s favorite painting, Carl Spitzeg’s The Poor Poet, and gives it to a Turkish family as a political act. But giving him the ultimate inspiration is Argo, in which the protagonists decide to pretend they are making a film to free American citizens who had taken refuge in the Canadian embassy in Tehran at the outbreak of the 1979 Islamic revolution. 

So, having obtained permission from the mayor of Salemi to shoot a film inside the Sicilian headquarters of Kim’s Video, a very peculiar cast sets out to execute the theft of the collection. Redmon says in the film: “I needed help to pull off my plan. So on that night I summoned the ghosts of cinema”. Indeed, helping him are Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Jim Jarmusch, Maya Deren, and even Jean-Luc Godard himself, who had sued the chain some years earlier. Obviously these were masks, although in a way we can romantically think of their spiritual support during that act.

David Redmon, Ashley Sabin, Yongman Kim and the “ghost of cinema” at Sundance Film Festival, where Kim’s Video was nominated for the NEXT Innovator Award, image from https://www.sundance.org/blogs/a-love-of-movies-is-the-real-star-of-kims-video/ 13/06/24, 12.40

The return of the collection to New York: a happy ending

After a long search, they found a place for the collection, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Lower Manhattan. When I asked Ashley Sabin what had been the most satisfying thing about the whole process, she replied: “I think having the collection touched back down in New York City on the street called Liberty, which seems very symbolic, was the best moment (…) I think now it remains to be seen what the space will be, whether it will be a simple museum or a space that people can access, whether Draft House will use it for community building workshops or with schools or things like that”. Today, the employees who work at the Alamo Drafthouse take it upon themselves to make the gems of this collection known on the Internet by posting on the Instagram profile @kimsvideoundergoung: “I think it’s interesting, you know, it’s like a way of reclaiming cinema for the public,” added Sabin. This place has become a symbol of cinephilia in New York, to the point that even Letterboxd, the popular social platform for sharing one’s cinematic tastes, sets some of its social content in the Alamo Drafthouse, in front of a wall of videotapes.

Since its release, the film has been shown all over the world, in over 7,000 cinemas. “I think that film culture exists everywhere, even in small towns, so I made a commitment to reach out to festivals all over the world also to small towns, so that the film could become a tool not only to engage people, to excite them and make them laugh, but also to have a kind of celebration of cinema” Sabin told me. Afterwards, she added that the Q&A was mostly attended by young people: “They were very impressed and were also trying to understand how we had not had any repercussions for breaking the law”. In this regard, when I asked her if she had any advice for filmmakers who want to start their first independent documentary, Sabin simply replied: “Break the rules”, which is perhaps what they are trying to tell us with Kim’s Video.

Still so much to tell 

Speaking of festivals, from this incredible story the CineKim Film Festival was born in 2022. It is a small film festival that takes place in the city of Salemi, named after their spiritual guide: Yongman Kim, who proudly participated in both editions. Their aim is to connect Salemi with the rest of the film world, through screenings of national and international films and by proposing to conceive, realize and promote many other side activities. 

I also had the opportunity to talk about independent cinema and about why it is so important to see independent films with Ashley Sabin: “I find that what is happening with the traditional and more mainstream ways of consuming media is that narrative lines become watered down and easily digestible, and I think this is problematic for the experience of understanding history in general and for the consumption of stories in whatever format they are, whether through visual art books or films (…) I think in this way it is about consuming and not challenging oneself intellectually and emotionally”. 

Eventually, I asked both Yongman Kim and Ashley Sabin if they were working on anything new, and if you loved this story, you will be happy with the answer. Mr. Kim is now working on “Mondo Platform”: “It is a bit too early, but I am planning a new platform where young people can come and share their ideas and talent” he told me, adding that he will have more information in six months. The name of this project comes from the film Mondo Cane by Italian director Gualtiero Jacopetti, whom Mr. Kim had the opportunity to meet in Salemi. Before leaving him after our interview, I couldn’t help but ask what his favorite films were. Mr. Kim replied that he is a big fan of silent films, adding that the first film he remembered was a Charlie Chaplin film. He also added Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon to his all-time favorite list, which I delved into in this other article. On the other hand, Sabin revealed to me that her and Redmon are working on their first fiction film, based on the making off of Kim’s Video: “We have another big shoot in New York City this August that will complete all the shooting we did in Sicily and Marseille earlier this month, so [it will be released] next year, hopefully”.

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