NO ONE SAW GEZI Park coming. Least of all the government. After more than a decade in power, the ruling Justice & Development Party (or AKP, by their Turkish acronym) literally tried to bulldoze over İstanbul residents’ rightful concerns for their local environment. And when that didn’t work, out came the teargas. For many citizens, at least 2.5 million who protested in June in all but two of Turkey’s 81 cities, the rallying cry was that it was never about a park. Acknowledged nationally & internationally (except by the government & its febrile supporters), the cause of the unprecedented unrest was state-sanctioned police brutality and, by extension, the arrogance of the prime minister. But before the excessive use of teargas, the beatings, & the tent-burning morphed a 4-day-old park sit-in into the political faultline that is now Gezi, initially it was all about trees & peaceful resistance to the AKP steamroller of blind urban development. And if one person did see that coming, it was filmmaker İmre Azem.
Released in 2011, his stunning documentary ‘Ekümenopolis: City Without Limits’ charts the rapid, unchecked transformation of İstanbul under local & national AKP policy. The film takes its title from the Greek word, ecumenopolis, meaning one continuous worldwide city. However, the limitless city that Turkey’s already largest is becoming is anything but celebratory. Azem’s film is certainly a visual treat, with epic aerial shots of the concrete towers which have come to dominate İstanbul’s skyline. But woven into the narrative are interviews with a cast of notable experts & academics who detail İstanbul’s incapacity to cope with such urban expansion, alongside a lack of regulations that allows for profits before people, & AKP lawmakers who disallow the laws of nature.
However, the tale of the city without limits doesn’t just rest with talking heads & sweeping cinematic scenes, as well as some excellent animation. ‘Ekümenopolis’ also follows the plight of a group of families from the former Ayazma neighbourhood of İstanbul. Originally set up by migrants who fled Turkey’s troubled southeast (read: Kurdish conflict) in the 1980s, Ayazma was demolished by the all-powerful TOKİ — Turkey’s Mass Housing Administration — in 2007 as part of the Urban Redevelopment Project. Whereas most families were rehoused in nearby, run-down apartment blocks, 18 families were never relocated. The poverty-stricken families, with obviously nowhere else to go, stayed on in tents. The film takes up their story in 2010, with yet another forced eviction & expected to stump up a deposit of TL 15,000 (over $7,000) on apartments they can only buy, not rent. As the group’s spokesman Kasım Aydın says, “Our 18 families have lived in tents for three years. Did they think we won the lottery last year?”
According to a recent interview with freelance journalist David Lepeska, the inspiration for Azem’s first release came from hearing a news report in 2009 on plans for a third bridge to cross the Bosphorus Strait. Now one of several mega-projects underway, with more to come, back then he had never heard of it, let alone any public discussion on the controversial bridge:
Everybody I spoke to said it’s a disastrous project, and that no one is really looking at the effects. More importantly, I learned that this is actually part of a much bigger plan, a much broader vision for Istanbul that includes all the urban transformation issues, all these other mega-projects. So I decided to make the film about not just the third bridge, but about all this, making connections between these issues.
On the third bridge alone, various academics make the compelling case that it is not just a transportation issue bringing more cars onto roads & increasing journey time & pollution, but also one where İstanbul will fill the entire 30-km stretch of land from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, & in the process strain an already overstretched water supply, endanger the surrounding water basins and, in the words of architect Hüseyin Kaptan, result in an “ecological catastrophe”.
Equally damning though, & again from the Kaptan interview, is the interference from elected AKP MPs:
In Turkey, the government intervenes in urban planning so much it’s insulting. How can the municipality make 9,000 changes [to] the city plans? For example, where a plan decision says you can build up to four floors, based on numerous scientific considerations, a politician simply crosses it out with a pen and writes “10 floors”.
As recent İstanbul history shows, such circumvention of expert knowledge can have devasting consequences. Journalist & ex-chair of the Chamber of Architects Oktay Ekinci points to the city floods of 2009 as an example, where warnings by city planners were ignored by politicians. Although not explicitly mentioned in the documentary, many an İstanbullu* will remember the flash floods that killed 31 people in Sept. 2009, with the worst of the flooding in the İkitelli business district in central İstanbul.
The standout interview throughout the film, however, has to be with the general secretary of the İstanbul Chamber of Architects, Mücella Yapıcı. More recently a leading member of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, the NGO seen as the official representative of the Gezi Park activists (not least by the Turkish police who detained & body-searched the 62-year-old campaigner in the wake of the protests), Yapıcı offers some telling insight into what’s at stake:
The mega-investments that foreign investors can’t perform in their home countries due to their democratic processes are all brought here. I’d like to pose a question: Can you build a hotel in Central Park in New York? No! Because people know that this space is needed for the city to breathe. It is needed for the rain water to reach the soil, even if you don’t go there. But here, we think it is modern to build parking lots underneath parks. We lose all the land’s soil, and we think it’s ecological to plant trees on balconies. We build houses in the forest. We construct fake ponds with underground water. We remove all of the soil and raise rabbits in one foot of soil. We call this natural life. Then we call shanty towns inhumane, demolish them, and replace them with concrete Faraday cages. It’s incomprehensible. Even if this doesn’t lead us to a crisis, this city will eventually kill us.
At just over 90 minutes, the issues covered & connected in Azem’s documentary herald nothing short of a doom-laden conclusion. This is a must-see movie, not just for the citizens of İstanbul or even Turkey, but for anyone interested in the origins of what drove 50 or so environmental activists, the director among them, to pitch tents in Gezi Park on 27 May of this year. Filmed in 2010, the roots of the nationwide anti-government protests dominating 2013 are more than apparent in this prescient film. Listen to the final scenes of people marching on the streets, protesting against forced evictions, demolitions & redevelopment, & there’s a familiar cry among the slogans: Resist İstanbul!
‘Ekümenopolis’ is more than a history lesson. Winner of the Human Rights Award at the 2011 Sarajevo Film Festival, it is a prophet for action against shortsighted governance which is tearing the fabric of nature & society apart. Indeed, the film’s own synopsis has it right:
Ecological limits have been surpassed. Economic limits have been surpassed. Population limits have been surpassed. Social cohesion has been lost. Here is the picture of neoliberal urbanism.
EKÜMENOPOLİS: The Trailer (with English subtitles)
Better still, the full documentary can be found here, also with English subs. (Make sure captions are turned on.)
*Turkish for inhabitant of İstanbul. As in Londoner, New Yorker etc.
How One Istanbul Filmmaker Foresaw the Gezi Protests — David Lepeska
Ekümenopolis — Official Website, in English & Turkish