Full Frame: Dina Is Earning Acclaim for Its Portrait of Love and Autism. But Is It Illuminating or Exploitative? | Arts

Full Frame: Dina Is Earning Acclaim for Its Portrait of Love and Autism. But Is It Illuminating or Exploitative?


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  • photo courtesy of Full Frame
  • Dina
Full Frame Documentary Film Festival:

Friday, April 7
Carolina Theatre, Durham

It speaks to the high quality of Full Frame that the films in its perennial programming range in quality from “above average” to “transcendent.” Any chagrin is typically reserved for experimental submissions that might not suit the taste of some viewers or docs that delve into controversial subject matter. You certainly don’t see many missteps among the invited films—the ones not in competition but chosen due to the pedigree of the director or the film’s previous accolades.

Foremost among the invited fare at Full Frame this year was Dina, winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. At the Full Frame screening Friday evening, there was a spirited atmosphere in the packed house, including a number of other filmmakers overheard throughout the day eagerly anticipating the screening. A few patrons arrived clad in faux furs and clasping filled wine goblets. But one hundred minutes and no fewer than twenty walkouts later, Dina proved a discomforting, exasperating exercise.

The film’s main subjects are Dina Buno and her fiancé, Scott Levin, an adult couple with autism living in a Philadelphia suburb. The narrative follows the forty-nine-year-old Dina and Scott through their impending nuptials, including the wedding planning, a bachelorette party, and a lot of self-doubt. Although it's seemingly cinéma vérité, the footage is shot and edited so that the end product resembles an indie dramedy, complete with an eclectic soundtrack.

Directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini clearly come from a place of deep affection. According to press reports, Sickles has known Dina most of his life, since his father cofounded an organization for developmentally challenged adults, of which Dina is a long-time member. Unfortunately, that familiarity seems to blind the filmmakers to the objective perception of their portrayal. The film’s incessant whimsy is grounded in all the “funny” things Dina, Scott, and their autistic friends say and do, whether it’s karaoke, the Macarena, or recounting their history of masturbation. There are copious scenes of Dina and Scott prattling like an old married couple. In these and elsewhere, Dina fails the “but for” test: content that’s largely unremarkable but for the fact that it’s being conveyed by people with a disability.

Sickles and Santini were not present Friday, so it fell to a member of the post-production filmmaking team to parry a probing post-screening Q and A session. He insisted that the film’s content was a collaborative effort between the directors and Dina, who apparently has a theatrical background not elucidated in the film. However, he had difficulty squaring Dina’s collaborative awareness with the fact that her cognitive abilities are such that, as noted in the film, she’s eligible for disability benefits. He also equivocated when asked what Dina’s parents thought about the film.

When pressed further, the filmmaker admitted that many scenes were prearranged by the directors and Dina for narrative impact. While he said the dialogue in every scene was spontaneous and genuine, it’s worth considering how staged settings might affect the interaction between people who are aware of the scene’s narrative purpose. It also skews close to the sort of docu-fiction that spawns pitched debates in the doc community.

The filmmakers sifted through many hours of footage to arrive at the story in Dina. One wonders if there’s a better film still out there, one that eschews the eccentricities and instead emphasizes Dina’s struggle and triumph over the adversities of her condition and her traumatic history with romantic relationships. The picture we're given feels incomplete and exploitative.


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