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Metro Canada: Filmmakers allow subject to speak for herself in “Dina.”

By Richard Crouse – Metro Canada

You will be amazed at the level of intimacy the filmmakers behind the documentary Dina are able to achieve. The story of a middle-aged woman preparing to marry her boyfriend benefits from the level of access awarded to co-directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini but is deepened by the fact that the bride and groom are on the autism spectrum.

“Dina has known me since before I was born,” says Sickles. “My dad met her because he was her teacher in high school. Around the time she graduated he started a group for adults with developmental disabilities called the Abingdon Kiwanis Aktion Club. I grew up going to these meetings so I have known Dina all my life.

“I lost my dad back in 2013 and because of that Antonio and I ended up going back to Philadelphia to continue post-production on our first film. It was only a few months after that when she started telling me about Scott and that he had proposed. The film really began from this opening created by my dad’s loss.”

The cinéma vérité doc follows Dina Buno and Scott Levin. She is a 48-year-old widow with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression, who has lived on her own for decades. He is a security guard at Walmart with Asperger’s who loves singing and still lives at home. We witness their courtship as they navigate through complicated feelings regarding his disinterest in sex—she gives him a copy of The Joy of Sex to help fire his imagination—and their future life together. A revelation regarding Dina’s traumatic past sheds light on her hypersensitive temperament.

“I wouldn’t say there were moments where we viewed what was happening on camera through the lens of exploitation,” says Sickles. “I think if you are going to make a film about a couple that is based on a real life relationship you have to be willing to go to uncomfortable places and moments. Part of our job was to create and maintain an atmosphere where anything could happen but that Dina could also feel free to be honest and open.”

Sickles and Santini were flies on the wall, uninvolved in the story and as such allowed the story to play out, warts and all.

“I don’t think the camera being there ever threatened them,” says Santini. “Because we were always hanging out when the camera was on and it was so small it wouldn’t change anything in the room. We’d say to Dina, ‘Now we’re not in the hang out mode, we’re in the filming mode,’ but we still have so much footage of Dina looking at us and laughing with us.’”

After the end credits roll there may or may not be a happy ending for Dina and Scott and no effort is made to suggest a fairy tale romance. The film, which won the U.S. documentary grand jury prize at Sundance, is simply a heartfelt look at two people facing and hopefully overcoming considerable problems.

“The more she watches the film and travels with Dan and me to promote it,” says Santini, “the more ownership she takes over the project which is what we wanted. To feel proud and confident enough in it to be the face of the film instead of having Dan and me speak on behalf of her.”

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