How One Istanbul Filmmaker Foresaw the Gezi Protests

As summer winds down and the Turkish government warns of a “hot autumn” of protest, this seems a good time to look back at the roots of Gezi frustration and ahead to a remade political landscape.

One sunny summer day in Istanbul, a woman stood before an animated crowd of protesters, many holding placards denouncing their government’s heavy-handedness. “Against the forces that create divided and unsafe cities, against the usurpation of our right to the city and for the right to shape our city ourselves,” she said to the crowd, “we declare that we’ll stand united, moving beyond all our differences.”

This seems an apt mission statement for the three-week occupation of Gezi Park earlier this year, a happening hailed by many Turks as an unprecedented moment of unity -- when Islamists and nationalists, religious and ethnic minorities and football fans of all stripes stood together against their government.

But the woman, Cihan Baysal, spokesperson for Urban Movements Istanbul, was speaking not just a few months ago, when protests swelled in Istanbul and spilled across Turkey, but in the summer of 2010.

This is a scene from Ekumenopolis: City Without Limits, a 2011 documentary about the city’s problematic transformation that seems to capture an iconic Istanbul uprising that had yet to happen. “Maybe I smelled it or something,” says the filmmaker Imre Azem, sipping tea on a bright, humid day in a park along the Bosporus. “Maybe it was a feeling. I don’t know. But to me it was obvious once I did the research that these urban issues would become the centerpiece of a social movement.”

Born in Istanbul, Azem studied political science and French literature at Tulane University, in New Orleans, before moving to New York City to work for a magazine. In 2003, prodded by what he saw as the injustice of the US invasion of Iraq, he and a friend began making a documentary linking that war to Western colonialism in the region. “We didn’t finish the film, but we learned filmmaking,” said Azem. “I really got a taste for documentaries.”

He saved some money and moved back to Istanbul in 2007 to start work on a film critiquing the global economic system through the problems of Istanbul. He cast about for the right approach, working odd jobs for a couple years, until lightning struck in 2009.

“One day I was listening to the radio and heard a story about the third bridge,” said Azem, referring to the third bridge over the Bosporus, following the first two built in 1973 and 1988. “I had never heard any public discussion of this project, so I started researching it.”

The bridge, to be built near the northern, Black Sea end of the 19-mile-long Bosporus, had initially been proposed during the mid-90s mayoralty of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who at the time said it would be “murder” to the city.

Istanbul planners agreed, pointing out that the construction area covers forests and water reservoirs the city needs to survive. But as prime minister, Erdogan has spearheaded the project, which began construction on May 29, a day before the Gezi protests exploded.

“Everybody I spoke to said it’s a disastrous project, and that no one is really looking at the effects,” Azem continued. “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.”

The film opens with one shot after another of Istanbul’s vast, repetitive sprawl, as a narrator likens the 19th century modernization of cities in the West to 21st century urbanization in the developing world. Azem details the destruction of old Istanbul neighborhoods and the mostly failed relocation of their residents before widening his lens to consider the third bridge, other mega projects and the city’s recent economic history. The film makes a convincing argument that the current leadership has put Istanbul in peril.

"With the new convention centers, sports and cultural centers that we're building, we're preparing the way for a modern future on a historic foundation," Erdogan says in the film. "At the same time, we're investing to turn Istanbul into the financial center of the world."

Writing about Ekumenopolis last year, the Turkish daily Today’s Zaman called it “a remarkable cinematic effort,” that “is also one of the most socially and politically pertinent works of our times.”

That pertinence exploded into view this past spring, when a small protest to halt the uprooting of a few trees mushroomed into a movement. Azem was at Gezi Park from the first night, sleeping in a tent with a handful of activist friends.

Abetted by over-aggressive police and security forces, their little demonstration soon blossomed into a nationwide movement against the government. By July, six people had been killed, including a police officer, and thousands injured in the crackdown.

Yet as Azem well knows, local concern about Taksim had been brewing for some time. Starting in mid-2011, when the government announced its plan to remake Taksim Square, several movements emerged to protect the square and highlight urban issues in Istanbul, including Taksim Solidarity and Urban Movements Istanbul. One event in January 2012 even included a discussion at Gezi Park about how “Istanbul Claims its Right to the City.”

“Even as a person struggling for social rights, who made a film about this and had been involved in the struggle for five years, I didn’t expect such a huge response,” said Azem, who believes the political ground has shifted leading up to local elections next March. “The Gezi resistance has sent a message, not only to the AKP, but to the whole established political system. The message is that this system of parliamentary democracy is not representing the will of the people.”

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