İmre Azem’s debut film is not only a remarkable cinematic effort but it is also one of the most socially and politically pertinent works of our times. It clearly shows us that the city of İstanbul, much like other mega cities in developing nations, is a ticking time bomb placed in a concrete jungle. Many authorities -- especially the Housing Development Administration of Turkey (TOKİ) and friends -- will not be happy with Azem’s work, for his thesis, supported by dozens of experts, shows us that what we have been witnessing as İstanbul’s “urban regeneration” is nothing more than the city and its people’s death sentence.
Azem’s story begins in the 1980s, during the Özal period, when neo-liberalism took its toll and brought millions of migrant workers from Anatolia to the city as workers. While the newly finance-centered economy focused on making maximum profit for urban land, it grew away from the understanding of a social state. While migrants were encouraged to come to the city, they were not provided with proper social housing by the state, nor the companies they worked for, and as such they ended up building strips of shantytowns throughout the cityscape by their own means. While to some these shantytowns are an embodiment of aesthetic ugliness and bad infrastructure on a macro and micro-scale, considering the last 30 years, the situation might not be as bad as it is made out to be. Government-sponsored social-housing schemes where the working class has been placed in massive concrete buildings on the outskirts of the city centers have brought social turmoil for the people of many global cities. So perhaps these shantytowns in İstanbul, in their own way, have up until now provided acceptable homes, neighborhoods and reliable communities for the working class. But then we come to the main problem: Is it the well-being of the working class that is more important, or the potential profit to be made from the land that these shantytowns have spread into?
Azem, accompanied by the expert views of respectable names such as Oktay Ekinci, Mücella Yapıcı, Mustafa Sönmez and Hüseyin Kaptan, follows the harrowing story of the inhabitants of the neighborhood of Ayazma, who have been forced out of their homes because their land was sold to a contractor in order to build a gated community complex for the upper classes. Although the people of Ayazma are a vivid example of the wronged parties of the new world order, they are not the only ones who are affected. There are numerous cases of forced eviction of the shantytowns and a subsequent multitude of concrete constructions being built in their place, made without any consistent urban planning; it is inevitable that the city will one day come to a dead end.
Of course, there are so many other variables in the equation, such as the possibility of a third bridge, the construction of more roads instead of solving the traffic problem on a macro-scale, how privatization has come to the point where the public voice is ignored and trampled on because someone out there needs to make millions of dollars from construction. The tableau is one of hopelessness and alarm. The city of İstanbul is growing out of proportion in a way that will see its resources being insufficient to support its inhabitants.
“Ekumenopolis” is a must-watch for those who not only want to understand the complicated real-estate schemes of the city but also of the many developing cities around the world that are undergoing the similarly problematic process of leaving behind the idea of social well-being and maximizing profits without any concern for future generations. As the film puts it: “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: Ecumenopolis.”
Directed by: İmre Azem