Berlinale 2021 review: District Terminal (Bardia Yadegari & Ehsan Mirhosseini)

A deserted city locked down under quarantine, a simmering totalitarian threat lurking on the periphery as climate change and addiction crush a man and his small community – these crises are familiar but otherworldly in District Terminal, the experiential fiction feature debut from directors Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini. At the center of the deterioration is a poet, Peyman (Yadegari pulling double duty), sinking in the emptiness of Tehran, today and tomorrow. He sleepwalks through a detached relationship with his mother, entangles himself in an illicit affair, endlessly deliberates with his two best friends Ramin and Mozhgan (Ali Hemmati and Gandom Taghavi), and leans vein-first into heroin usage alongside his step-daughter. His world is a series of weighty maladies, exaggerated backdrops for a breakdown Peyman at times embraces, unopposed.

Not even the prospect of a better future in the United States, perversely dangled remotely by a transactional overseas wife-to-be, can lift the fog of existence. Peyman simply meanders along, returning from daily trials to an ongoing attempt at finishing a manuscript, one that surely will be censored by authorities. Lines between reality and delusion intensify around him, indistinctly, and the weight of life suggests a gradual crumbling of everything around him. While all of this is personal yet coolly rendered, there is no mistaking the reach for grander implications.

Does it even matter what is reality when all is helpless?” Peyman confronts himself, a question that arrives years into the American embargo of Iran after decades of poverty, war and dictatorship. He is a mirror of contemporary Iranian society in which hope can only manifest itself in fear and death. “It doesn’t matter where we go. We carry this hell inside us,” his mother succinctly declares. What can be the future if this is the past?

The filmmakers soften the collection of bleakness with a thread of dark humor throughout District Terminal, though this is not necessarily to be confused with optimism. When Peyman half-heartedly runs circles around his friends in a courtyard again and again, day after day, it’s an unlikely, dystopian spin on the broad gags of American commercial fare (think apocalyptic, experimental Groundhog Day). Yadegari and Mirhosseini adapt the vernacular of a stereotypical indie music video in the introduction of the wannabe hip, Amy Winehouse-chirping step-daughter. The soft rock chestnut Alone Again, Naturally flutters through another scene. Even the suggestion of immigration to the U.S.A., perpetual adversary to half the globe, ripples with sly absurdity. These takes are as purposefully on the nose as the depictions of reality versus hallucination are murky elsewhere.

Where some filmmakers might embrace precise visual cues or editing decisions to define the real and unreal, those distinctions are sometimes missing in District Terminal. The approach is disorienting but intentional. It forces the hopelessness and madness of this onscreen Tehran, tangible and imaginary, into a shared cipher that Peyman and the viewer must confront. The quarantine enforcement squads that irregularly pop up, in particular, are unnerving given the context of the last year (the film was mostly filmed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, quite eerie foreshadowing). It takes some work, however, to navigate, so when Peyman admits that he “prefers real hopelessness to empty hope,” the straightforward acknowledgment hits with simple resonance. Likewise, a centerpiece scene near the end of the film with his friend Ramin at a dumpsite, surrounded by a lush forest, impresses.

Yadegari and Mirhosseini deliver a vision enhanced with autobiographical references, as well as nods to other filmmakers (including Bergman, Schrader and blink-and-miss-it Chabrol). Their perspective may feel heavy and puzzling at times but it is nonetheless potent and aware. It can be mystical in ambiguity or formal in delivery. As the world emerges from months of lockdown and disease, the rise of authoritarianism pulsing across continents and the science of climate change provoking conspiracies from some quarters, the complexities of District Terminal are alarmingly commonplace, if still chaotic. In any event, the work suggests the backdrop of our near past might be the hell we carry forward inside of us, too.