Review: District Terminal
by Ola Salwa
- BERLINALE 2021: Set in a war zone, this Iranian-German film by Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini is draining to watch, but offers some unexpected dark poetry and sunshine
Watching Bardia Yadegari and Ehsan Mirhosseini’s District Terminal [+see also:
film profile], an Iranian-German entry in the Berlinale’s Encounters competition, this reviewer immediately wondered whether the reception would be any different in a coronavirus-free era. The story, set in the not-so-distant future, revolves around unsuccessful poet Peyman (Bardia Yadegari). He shares a small flat with his elderly mother, walks or runs around an empty neighbourhood, hears mostly bad news from the outside world, meets the same group of people all the time and is wallowing in frustration – sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yet it’s difficult to connect with the doomed protagonist – it’s as if the sheer number of calamities have cancelled each other out.
On top of all that, Peyman is a heroin addict who goes to Narcotics Anonymous meetings on a regular basis, but has no intention of getting clean. As his teenage step-daughter, also a substance abuser, puts it, they don’t take drugs to get high; they just want to kill the pain for a while. Almost everywhere the camera looks, there is either sadness, some kind of void or disintegration, albeit presented with some alluring aesthetics. Peyman takes photos of decaying buildings, walls and windows, which serve as an apt metaphor for his emotional state. Architecture in general has a hidden meaning here – the buildings and cities used to be shelters or a tool for human defence, protecting us from nature and all it can throw at us, such as rain, fire and wind, while now, they are a source of oppression and imprisonment. The suffering in this film is man-made: there is no fate, nor any cruel, divine judgements from above. The on-screen world is a wasteland, even if the minds of its inhabitants are working incessantly.
Peyman has endless discussions with his closest friends about the meaning of life, hope, addiction and prospects for the future (or lack thereof), engendering only more frustration. Haunted by visions of his dead father, a censor, and men dressed in suits and gas masks, he gradually enters a downward spiral. His only hope of a better life – joining his wife in the USA, a woman he only married to get a visa – is drifting away, and he isn’t able to take one single step towards a brighter future.
Even though it is inspired by true events and actual biographies of banned artists, the dystopian District Terminal, in which director Bardia Yadegari also plays the lead, feels bleak, also emotionally. The picture is not entirely pitch-black, though; there are a few lovely moments between Peyman and his step-child, and a recurring scene with him watering a plant from his lover with his own blood – they bring a little more life and actual poetry to the film, however dark and twisted it may be. After all, even concrete can sometimes crack to reveal sprouting blades of grass.
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