The island of Vis as Imaginary place

Author: Irena Sertic

As a part of the PAIC project, a workshop will be held in September in Komiža, in the island of Vis, Croatia with the aim to artistically instigate cultural shifts and social change especially in the sense of raising civic engagement to improve the quality of life in local community and build public will (collective value of bonding social networks that connect people, rise trust, reciprocity and cooperation) that help to cohere island’s community members around common purpose, identity, and sense of belonging, and lead to development of social capital.

The workshop is designed according to PAIC core values which shape the project identity as socially and culturally oriented art project which uses share production, collaborative creativity and artistic forms and structures and explore the notion of possibility for community transformation which include personal and group decisions, choice and cultural and social context. Further, we want to explore the social and cultural context and the ways local people view the impact of cultural activities on their place or community – on codes of conduct, identity, sense of place, heritage promotion and protection as well as cultural management (participation, representation).


Artists and creative practitioners together with local people will work on the revival, renewal, reactivation and highlighting of cultural resources on targeted location through activities based on a combination of creativity and collective, personal and historical knowledge, emphasising historical heritage, with an aim to encourage the development of new cultural policies that combine tradition and innovation. They will complement each other’s skills and expertise and take on challenges that no one could solve alone.


The PAIC workshop will be organised around the concept of “cultural heritage” by applying co-creation techniques – involving community to jointly create value and changes through creative imagination and creative thinking (e.g. during the ideation phase of a new product or service) or to contribute, evaluate, and refine new ideas and concepts, create useful programs and set up a groundwork for effective implementation. The main focus of PAIC project is to create a type of environment in which people feel they belong to and want to be a part of, and to induce place-based initiatives to preserve and develop identity and encourage people to reconnect with the local, the personal, and the unique and create and maintain attachment to the place.


As the result we hope to develop fresh perspectives and useful inspiration for creative activities which will provide space and/or methods for re-interpreting local cultural legacy, representing local community past and reinterpreting stories about their culture. These activities will be based on the fusion of historical and contemporary cultural heritage[1] (‘living culture’) – moveable, immoveable, tangible or intangible to become the symbol of the cultural identity.


Preserving heritage as evidence of the past and local culture is more than just freezing a moment in time.  It has intrinsic value and acts as a strong bound element in people’s life: a sense of belonging, common identity and values as well as beliefs, all contributing to development of a strong sense of place and security in modern world. Thus, it is important to ensure that local cultural values are enhanced and that past, present and future are mediated by culture.


The context of workshop


The island of Vis and the town of Komiza represent particular topologies within both Croatian and Adriatic geographical and historical context and within the wider Mediterranean cultural-historical and geo-political environment. Vis and Komiza have witnessed prehistoric times, the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, the 19th century struggles of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy and England for the domination over the Adriatic and the wave of emigration from the island to America (San Pedro, CA). At the beginning of the 20th century Vis was the only free territory in the Adriatic in 1944 with collaborating forces of Tito’s partisans and British Army stationed on the island. Special topological punctum is Tito’s cave. Today it is also an international tourist destination.

All the while, Vis and Komiža have been both the periphery and the centre of Mediterranean and Croatian culture. Despite having a small number of inhabitants, a small surface area and being geographically isolated, Komiža is an urbanized place featuring a pronounced linguistic, cultural, economic and social identity.

Because of its strong identity through the history it can serve as a mediator for the problems that are common to island communities in Croatia, which arise as a result of physical, social and cultural isolation and are in conflict with their aspirations for change.


Komiža and the island of Vis have a lot to offer: their current identity is the result of cultural stratification that occurred over the centuries. To understand its evolution, it is necessary to rediscover what happened in the history. Uncovering memories, places, and artistic expressions can become a path of regeneration for the community identity.


Local culture is a complex system with various interconnected components: relationships, economy, politic, traditions and values. External influences can bring about change that occurs too rapidly in one of the components and which are likely to have far-reaching repercussions in other components as well, or even in all of them. Sudden event can make a crack in local culture which is formed as accumulation of human experience and long-term adaptations to life in the place they live. It can become a source of harmful stress for the members of local culture and can affect or even damage the nature of local community identity. Island Vis, and especially Komiža town are expecting this kind of disturbancy of everyday life with events that can be described as the invasion of Hollywood film makers and major stars of the musical “Mamma Mia” and bringing the Hollywood film industry to the island.


Vis as a team park?


The sequel to the famous musical Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again with well-known stars like Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth is set to be filmed on the Croatian island of Vis this autumn. But unlike the inhabitants of the Greek island where the first movie ‘Mamma Mia!’ was filmed, who could be proud to see the emergence of their local landmark, uniqueness, natural beauty and the domination of their picturesque and beautiful island in the movie, and could think or exclaim „the world will see our island Skopelos now“, Croatian island Vis will not be the main place of action. It will become a scene and backdrop of Greek island where the first movie action took place, with a stone house and objects in Mediterranean style, which easily fits in Greek landscape. It will become a Greek paradise and Mamma Mia made-up island Kalokairi, and thus „the island that was not there”. With its natural and cultural beauty Croatian island will make both – Greek island Skopelos and film Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again look very attractive.

By the attempt to create an atmosphere of another place and time, and emphasize specific theme – tell the story of Mamma Mia made-up island Kalokairi – around which architecture and landscape are arranged, this phenomenon in a way corresponds to the concept of team park. As a hyper-reality, a world copy or deceptive reality[2], it could become the main motivator for tourists’ visits and could have commercial value, but as a side effect people will see what they want to see and believe in what they want to believe, and that could be that Vis is a beautiful Mamma Mia Greek island. This way it could destroy both – the environmental identity (connection to natural environment) and cultural identity of Island Vis. Therefore it is necessary to turn our attention to the implications that foreign intrusion and first film versions of Mamma Mia! had on new set of conditions, local expressions of identity and sense of place at locations where it was filmed.


The Greek example

The tiny, idyllic Greek island of Skopelos, without an airport, reachable only by ferry, once was known for its dried white plums, olives, pears, scented pine trees, peace and quiet, authentic hilltop towns, empty beaches, characterful tavernas and unspoilt island life. But after becoming the backdrop of a blockbuster featuring Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan it became more famous as the place where Mamma Mia! was filmed. Once being Greek paradise, now people ask, how to get to Mamma Mia! paradise.” As Hollywood’s one of the most successful and the fastest-selling musical film, Mamma Mia has spawned millions of fans around the world. They now make pilgrimages to this island causing a massive tourism boom. Hotels have been booked up months in advance, the bars and restaurants have an air of Mamma Mia excitement and „every couple of hours an enormous ferry disgorges another batch of Mamma Mia! fans on to the quayside in picturesque Skopelos town, often in full song. Until they realise it’s not quite as it was on the big screen.“


But, in the same time when Mamma Mia! was becoming one of the highest-earning movie and visitor numbers started to skyrocket, the island started to struggle to keep up with outside interest and increasingly odd requests of visitors: to touch and sniff at Brosnan’s beach shoes, to get married or renew old wedding vows at the island’s most picturesque Greek Orthodox chapel or to climb up the stairs – those steps which Meryl allegedly run up without a stop for a single breath. Trying to recapture the magic of the movie setting, Skopelos generated new cinematic or film tourism[3], and the chapel of Agios Ioannis generated a new Greek wedding industry.


Instead of promoting Skopelos’ unspoilt natural beauty, culture, architecture, ancient history and pride, there was a fear that the film that promoted the island will ended up destroying it. There was a struggle between those wanting to preserve the island’s culture and those who wanted to squeeze every dollar or Euro they could out of Mama Mia fans. And while for some people increased tourists number might sound like good news and this kind of tourism as harmless fun, travel writers in Britain, convinced that this Hollywood blockbuster will have worrying effect on the island, predicted the death of Skopelos, and that „tens of thousands of Mama Mia fans would turn the island’s religious and cultural life upside down as Hollywood and commercialism had done so many times before, not only in Greece but also throughout Africa and the Far East.“

Today tourists can enjoy the Mamma Mia! Highlights – The Tour of the Island Skopelos, visit the film locations with movie gossip,  “Mamma Mia wedding church” which they also call  Mamma Mia chapel (beautiful Ag.Ioannis Chapel),walk up the 199 steps to the top and get into the Mamma Mia movie feeling…”, stop at “Mamma Mia beach“- in reality Kastani  beach (this beautiful beach is “proved to be the perfect film location”) “for more in depth film information and some relaxation” and then visit Agnontas small fishing port where they can “swim in the crystal clear waters or choose to enjoy lunch in one of the beach tavernas” and pass another film location called “Three Trees”. This tour is promoted as a “great way to get to know the island!!” and tourists can enjoy it every Wednesday and Sunday for 30 Euro per person. And they can also book a wedding and Mamma Mia chapel for 200 Euros.

But what happened with local people? The Greeks like to go out for a coffee, spend their evenings eating and drinking together. Cafeterias and traditional taverns in Greece and the Greek Islands are not only an entertainment place, they are a way of living and a strong part of daily Greek culture. But after Mama Mia taverna life in Skopelos has being eroded, prices in the bars and tavernas have gone up by 50 per cent and the local can no longer afford to eat out. Even prices at supermarkets have gone up drastically. So, could the local people of picturesque and beautiful Skopelos share the Mamma Mia! effect with the same enthusiasm and ardour for life to imitate art since this hollywoodization of the island? And why, despite their steely determination that their island will ‘never became a Captain Corelli’s Island’ – the nearby island Kefalonia, where Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was filmed, they managed to transform filming into symbolic capital by producing Mamma Mia Island – “the island that was not there” (see more at “Cultures of Mass Tourism: Doing the Mediterranean in the Age of Banal Mobilities” -online version on online verion)


When stage replace the essential historic authenticity


While the island of Skopelos was staging Mamma Mia Greek island, Kefalonia island became the Captain Corelli’s Island with thousands or millions of romantic travellers who come to the Greek island destination because they saw it in a movie about World War Two. Kefalonia became best known as the setting for Louis De Berniere’s novel and the Nicolas Cage film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and the movie became a classic case of driving up the popularity of a destination which was for decades largely ignored by holiday and tourism providers, now turning it to established holiday resort.


The way the destination’s culture is depicted in the film, together with the overall scenery followed by the story, actors, landscape and historical memory captured through the film contributed to the cinematic imposition of film on reality, creating pseudo reality that generated an ambiance that brought to people what they want in their lives: love, emotion, adventure, seduction….. giving them opportunity to forget “reality” while diving into into a fictional story.


After, the island has been represented through film images originated from the collection of symbols, information, signs, beliefs, ideas and impressions projected through film viewers and visitors/tourists’ imaginary, creating visitors induced tourism that depicts the places as alien to true Kefalonian culture and identity. The banal traces of the Captain Corelli’s Mandolin sign industry, such as the name of caffees that mushroomed after the film, turned island into the post-Captain Corelli’s Mandoline tourist industry described in the Tripadvisor, the largest travel site in the world which claims to give the “honest and true review” with words: “Kefalonia – This is the beach in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” or “If you are a Captain Corelli fan then there are several more sites around the Sami area that you may wish to visit“. Other sites, tourism providers and holiday makers also ignore the historical context and promote Captain Corelli Kefalonia cinematic landscape. One Greek tourist site has a special webpage under the title “Filming of Captain Corelli put Kefalonia on the global map” with the photos of main actors, inviting visitors to book luxury village houses “near where the true story of Captain Corelli’ Mandoline was filmed.


Nowdays, Kefalonia is not the island of Hellenic Gods, but that of Capitano Corelli where stage replaced the essential historic authenticity. When set construction team reconstructed old Argostoli (Capital of Kefalonia) and made cinematic facades, tourists began to photograph themselves in front of them. Even local printing company took shoots of the film set and reproduced them as “Old Argostoli” postcard without bothering to explain that the image shown were of film set. This way of creating desirable images by trading in fake authenticity distance people from the real destination and the real landscape of Kefalonia characterised by beaches, beauty and beekeepers and turn the perception of the island into a “society of spectacles”[4] where images overpower reality, tourist gaze[5] shapes perceptions and film inscribes meaning onto places.



Whose island is Vis?


Film tourism is a relatively new and growing phenomenon and in a comparison to the other types of tourism, very little is known about it. Nevertheless, it’s popularity is growing rapidly, as many tourists nowadays are continuously seeking to experience escape to a different ‘world’, to which they can familiarize with. Therefore, in the context of holywoodization of the island of Vis, designing the workshop in Komiža, with an aim to incite cultural regeneration by developing a new sense of communities’ cultural identity in a form of renewable culture – a culture that is able to survive, will be a challenging task. We need to consider the possible impacts which creating deceptive, pseudo or hyper-reality can have on the island’s destination(s) and on local people, especially if the film becomes the part of destination promotion, not necessarily well controlled, and if elements of the film (actors, landscape as film scenery, storyline and symbolic content) become the focal point of tourist interest and attract tourists seeking to participate cinematic tourism. Consequences could be seen in modification of tourism infrastructure, cinematographic images of Vis’ as touristic destination, commodification, loss of authenticity and identity or even cultural conflict between different stakeholders.


A film industry is very powerful and can influence tourism and destination development as an element of the overall community  – economical, social and cultural aspects. In the centre of film makers interest is a film and its success, not the consequences within the community and location once they have stopped filming. They are „creating the film they want, not the tourism image that…. community wants”[6]. „Through interest groups and initiatives, communities could influence the planning process to some extent.“[7] Even if community participation is encouraged and attempted, the natural and cultural environment can experience pressure from a film industry as “tourists will often come to see a famous site regardless of the immediate community’s wishes”[8].  In the background of this phenomenon lies psychology of consumer society which fills the human psyche with information, signs, symbols and images to create links not just in the form of goods but also through an imaginary purchase as well tourists’ emotional attachment with films, as the recreation of the impressive scene at the filmed locations functions as a powerful push motivator.


In the case of film tourism growth, impacts on the local communities on Vis will arguably become the issue of authenticity, identity and representation. This kind of tourism could provide tourists with the opportunity to experience something very fictional which will stimulate their senses to believe the location to be as real as real Greek paradise Skopelos and Mamma Mia made-up island Kalokairi. If Vis authenticity will be taken into postmodern aspects of hyper-reality and simulation where tourist cannot differentiate easily between what is real and what is fake, this might distort the image of the island and experience when visiting the island’s destinations and attach different (deceptive) meaning to its places.


In this new context in which the workshop is going to happen there is a need to convince wider public and island’s communities that authenticity of place is important aspect of social development and for sustaining local identity and a sense of place. The questions that should be argued are: How to control the meaning of the place? How to raise the island’s / town’s profile in the public / visitor’s consciousness? How they can contribute to a culture and history of the place and preserve and promote the past, shape the present and anticipate the future? How they can create places that mark who they are as a community by celebrating culture or heritage?



[1]              Heritage today is referring to a broader type of properties if compared to the last half-century: not only the individual places as conceived in that period (i.e., fortifications) with no links or relationships to the surrounding landscape, but the whole environment is recognised as heritage today, as defined by the World Heritage Convention.

[2]               An illusion that looks real through tourism imagery based on people’s inclination to create psychological illusions

[3]               The variation in terminology is used to define the concept of film tourism. Some tend to favour the term ‘movie tourism’ while others use ‘film tourism’ or „cinematic tourism“. Another term is  film-induced tourism, whereby tourist visits are induced or stimulated by viewing a film location on-screen. This is a relatively narrow definition as there are a number of different forms of film tourism.

[4] Susan Sontag (1977) On Photography, Picador 1977

[5] Urry, J. and J. Larsen (2011). The Tourist Gaze (3.0). London: Sage.

[6] Sine Heitmann (2010) Film Tourism Planning and Development—Questioning the Role of Stakeholders and Sustainability, Tourism and Hospitality Planning & Development, 7:1, 31-46, DOI: Heitman ut Beeton, 2010, p.9

[7]              Sine Heitmann (2010) Film Tourism Planning and Development—Questioning the Role of Stakeholders and Sustainability, Tourism and Hospitality Planning & Development, 7:1, 31-46, DOI: 10.1080/14790530903522606

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[8]  Heitman ut Beeton, 2010, p.8