From The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night– Time to The Big Bang Theory and Parenthood, autism has been a recurring topic in literature and television. Many authors and film directors have portrayed people with this disorder, although the accuracy of these depictions has long been criticised.
Before going into greater detail, we shall describe what “autism” means. According to The National Autistic Society, it is a “lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them” (What is Autism, 2016). As we can expect from the vagueness of the term, autism entails a community of diverse people with a wide range of lifestyles and traits. And yet, the media typically delivers a reductionist version of this reality: a stereotypical higher functioning autistic male. And yet, they seem to abhor using actual autistic adults in the elaboration of these stories.
It is for all these reasons that films like Dina break the mould, as far as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) representation in the media goes.
Directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, also the winner of the U.S. documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, the motion picture follows Dina, a 49-year-old woman living in suburban Philadelphia, and the events that precede her wedding with her fiancée, Scott, a Walmart gatekeeper who has just moved in with her. Both of them, who fall under the Autistic Spectrum, will together face challenges while striving to find romance.
Although that is the plot of the movie, it certainly is not what it is about. Far from concentrating on how the couple’s relationship differs from that of neurotypicals, it shows a love story as complex as any other. In Dina’s and Scott’s case, the tensions arise mostly from Dina’s desire for physical affection, which Scott is apparently unable to offer, although not due to a lack of interest.
It is worth mentioning that the film is, in fact, a documentary, although it does not follow the standard format: there are no interviews and the characters never look directly into the camera. Santini and Sickle blended reality and fiction seamlessly together by always placing the camera in the same position, so as to capture with rawness over 500 hours of video footage, which were then cut down to the roughly two hours that the documentary lasts for. The idea behind this, explains Santini, was to make a traditional romantic comedy, but with genuine characters. Effectively, Dina and Scott are not invented characters, but real people who are not afraid to use the word “autistic” to describe themselves, though they refuse to let this label limit them.
Throughout the motion picture, we become the silent witnesses of both awkward and tender conversations between Scott and Dina, as well as of the moments that make up their routines: how they wake up at the same time each morning and watch the same TV programmes each evening, and how Scott wanders around the parking lot before starting every single one of his work days. On a side note, it was heartening to see how increasingly less often autistic people are discriminated against in the labour market, which is an essential step to integrate them into the community.
What’s more, the documentary also touches on graver issues, such as the abuse that people with autism occasionally experience, in a very sensitive way.
“Most people having gone through what you’ve gone through would have possibly perished by now but you haven’t; you are still here inspiring people. I could never handle what you’ve been through in your life”. These are the last words we hear before listening to the 911 call recording that unveils Dina’s past story of abuse from her ex-boyfriend. Although this is revealed in the final moments of the film, it can hardly be considered a spoiler, for the directors repeatedly hinted this mistreatment by showing Dina’s back scars while following her changing her clothes.
In short, Dina is a story about two ordinary people with extraordinary lives. Let it be a reminder of honesty and humanity and, above all, a chance to celebrate diversity.
This review was written by Celia Esteban Serna and edited by Jessica Pu. Both of them are members of the Bugle team.