We interviewed Imre Azem to discuss his first feature-length Ekümenopolis, a documentary that tells the story of urban transformation at the macro level. The film follows a group of families that are pushed to the margins by the construction of an ‘affordable mass housing project’ and connects their stories to Istanbul’s history as well as the global dynamics of urban growth.

Re-watching Ekümenopolis in light of the recent Gezi movement revealed that the uprising was neither sudden nor surprising; it had a clear background. What connects the film and the urban movement?
It was a small movement, dedicated to making urban issues visible. At the same time, it did not come out of the blue. Before we made the film, I lived in the United States for fourteen years, going back to Istanbul about every six months. More often than not, changes in a city become clearer from a distance. So, not living in Istanbul was actually beneficial and returning often enough to follow the changes also helped. I had always wanted to make a film about Istanbul’s urban development. But I didn’t know where to start and how to do it until I returned to Istanbul for good in 2007. Around that time, I heard of plans for a third bridge across the Bosporus. I wasn’t even aware of these plans, although the issue had been under discussion since 1994, and I thought that this might be a good starting point for my film narrative.

How did you develop the film’s storyline?
I started researching, going to conferences, reading about urban development, and so on. Through this I also met an activist group that organized people against the bridge. After meeting people in neighborhoods affected by big construction projects, I realized that I could not just make a film about transportation, urban issues, or the third bridge – it had to cover everything. Instead of delving deep into a single subject, our goal was to look at the city as a whole.

In that sense, the film really is a criticism of the economical and political system, viewed through the city. The city itself is a reflection of the system we live in: the social relationships, the buildings, the way we organize roads, or allocate land, the ownership structures. By telling the story of a city, we are actually telling the story of the system it exists in.


Are people in Istanbul aware of the city’s issues? Can you see a development after Gezi?
In 2010, a big protest took place in Kadiköy. This was also featured in the film, as it was attended by our protagonists as well as many other concerned families and groups. This might have been the city’s first sizeable urban-related protest. Back then, about 3,000 people flocked to the protest. Just three years down the line, in the winter of 2013, a similar protest attracted more than 30,000 attendees!


With your film and the growing opposition against top-down urban transformations, do you feel that the topics are being properly discussed? Or are you already working on a sequel?
The purpose of the film was not just to document, but also to ignite a debate on urban issues. For instance, when I first heard about the third bridge, it was the Minister of Transportation who stated the fact on the radio. No prior discussion, no reasons given. Such urban topics were only ever discussed among academics – and it was my main goal to take them to the public. There are so many vital issues! It was crazy that these were not being talked about among those affected by the transformations. In that sense, I do not want to make a sequel. Especially after Gezi, there is no need for it anymore. Ekümenopolis served its purpose.


Ekümenopolis was your first full-length documentary. How did the production process affect you?
The film was my learning process. We did not make this film because we knew what was going on or what we wanted to show people. It was rather my way of finding out, researching, and learning – and the finished film was simply a way to share. But it was also our protagonist Kasim’s own story and learning process. He found out that the problems he was facing were also affecting others. There were other neighborhoods, other cities in the world, facing the same issues. By making this film, I got involved with the urban opposition, and so did Kasim. He now goes to other neighborhoods to host panels and share his experiences. It helps people to organize and voice their needs.


Back when the film started out, what was the biggest change faced by Istanbul and its urban development?
A lot has happened since the film: Government has announced new mega projects like the Canal Istanbul, a second man-made Bosphorus, and the third airport, but I don’t think they matter anymore. I think Gezi was the beginning of a new stage in urban uprising. People are no longer going to let others take their right to the city away. We have to get organized, that is one of the main lessons and outcomes of Gezi. Take, for example, the Istanbul neighborhood forums (sixty and counting): These have proven one of the best ways for people of all ages and backgrounds to get organized in small, democratic units. Now some of them are squatting unused buildings in their areas and turning them into community centers! The movement for urban rights and the protection of public space is on the rise. I see a very positive future ahead, but we should not lean back and relax. Now that we have two squatted community centers, by the end of the year we should aim for ten.


Are you personally involved in any of these projects?
We try to help wherever we can. These days, I often go to a publicly owned farm and city garden in Kuzguncuk. This huge green space was scheduled to make way for large-scale construction, but the locals fought and won. Now, everyone can continue to plant their salads and veggies – it is beautiful!

Interview: Nina Ludolphi
All photos, incl. the header image: Screenshots from Ekümenopolis by Imre Azem