Award-winning film from Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini focuses on neuro-diverse woman navigating life and her upcoming marriage
It would be hard to find a more endearing, humorous and compelling character in a documentary than Dina Buno, the star of the new film Dina. As a "neuro-diverse" woman on the autistic spectrum she lacks the guile characteristic of so many members of society whose neurological wiring constitutes the norm. Unlike most people she is never less than candid about her hopes, dreams, fears and even sexual needs.
Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini directed Dina, which won the grand jury prize for best U.S. documentary at Sundance. The film expands to Los Angeles this weekend (Landmark Nuart Theatre) after opening in New York last Friday.
She was tired of always being medicalized, of always everything being about her limitations.
The film follows Dina during an important phase in her life as she heads toward marriage with fiancé Scott Levin, an earnest and well-meaning man also on the autistic spectrum. Among the supporting characters are Dina's sometimes exasperated mother, and members of the Kiwanis Aktion Club, a club in the Philadelphia area for people with disabilities that was founded by Sickles' late father, Ed. Dina considered the elder Sickles her mentor.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with Sickles and Santini about Dina Buno, neurodiversity, and, oh yes, that curious hat Santini sported at Nextfest L.A.
Nonfictionfilm.com: Dan, your relationship with Dina goes as far back as it possibly could go.
Dan Sickles: She has more memory of me than I do, actually. She's known me since before I was born. I grew up going to these meetings of this club that my dad had started with Darlene Anderson, who also appears in the film, called the Kiwanis Abington Aktion Club... I've known all of them [club members] my entire life. They're one of the only groups of people that still call me Danny.
NFF: How would you describe Dina as a person?
Dan: It's weird for me because it's kind of like describing my sister. The second she steps away I miss her like nothing else and then 15 minutes after seeing her I want to pull my hair out. She's incredibly generous. I don't think there are many films about 50-year-old sexually empowered women who are neuro-diverse.
Antonio Santini: [The film] means a lot to her because she gets to say to herself that she accomplished something that proved other people wrong, people [who put her down] -- everything from bullies in school, former lovers, peers in her community, strangers on Facebook, all those things.
NFF: One of the issues that sometimes comes up with documentaries about neuro-diverse people is one of informed consent. Some may wonder do the characters have the capacity to fully understand what they're consenting to by participating in a film? I would add, anyone who poses that question may have a preconception about agency among neuro-diverse people and how they see their own lives.
Antonio: The thing with the question about consent is it usually comes up when Dina isn't in the room. I realized that at a film festival when I went alone and someone asked me about the possibility of exploitation and all I could say was, 'God, I wish Dina was here because you could just ask her.'
A big part of the reason why Dina even wanted to collaborate with us in the first place was because she was really tired of people speaking on her behalf. She was tired of always being medicalized, of always everything being about her limitations. And because all the limitations went against her desires and the things that she wanted for herself, she constantly had to question, 'I want this but somebody's telling me that shouldn't do that. I shouldn't have sex. I shouldn't get married, I shouldn't get a job, I shouldn't want to be an actress.' So for us we just didn't want to be another group of people that condemned her experience. We wanted to let her have her own space.
Dan: We not only know the people that are in the [Aktion] club and featured in the movie but we know their parents and in some cases their grandparents who are taking care of them -- who are their guardians. The film is coming from a much larger community than what's seen in it. That is something that we talked about with every family member that wanted to speak with us... Dina has always been a part of giving feedback and talking about why certain choices have been made and giving us notes as to what she thinks along the way. We give them a bit more credit... This is something that community still very much supports and is excited to be a part of.
NFF: One of the interesting things the film raised for me is the question of what qualifies as "neuro-normative" in our society. Those of us who don't have to question our neurological makeup may think of people like Dina and Scott as peculiar in some fashion or objects of curiosity. Yet it occurred to me that maybe we're just aliens in their world.
Dan: That's exactly it. [I asked her once] 'Okay Dina, explain the difference between somebody like me and somebody like you, or people that you consider as part of your community and people you see as part of my community.' And she essentially was like, 'Well, you guys lie.' I was like, 'Oh, whoa.' Remembering that notion, I feel like neuro-typical people -- more so than people who exhibit neurological differences -- we're animals of evasion and deception and mask-wearing, whereas somebody like Dina, she's very straight up and there's value in that. Again, I don't think that's something that's appreciated enough, not only about her but about a lot of people in these communities.
NFF: I wanted to ask you some questions about the filmmaking. The look of the film is quite distinctive. It's kind of pastel, somewhat washed out.
NFF: Why did you want it to look that way?
Dan: You go to suburban Philadelphia and there's all of these cool beige colors to be working with. And Dina is always dressed in pastels. She has a ton of sweatshirts that are all different shades of pink and purple and like light green. This sort of palette lends itself to highlighting the soft and delicate nature of who she is but also what is already happening there.
NFF: You keep the camera stationary in pretty much every scene. I read that you said to move the camera during a scene would be to editorialize. I find that such an interesting concept.
Dan: There's so many things that happen in the film that are golden moments because the moments unfold in real time. It's not a paraphrase of that moment. Our other aesthetic choices too, including the palette, I think it lifts it out of time a bit. To me this is a story that exists obviously in 2015 and 2016 but I feel it could happen in any decade surrounding that. It's not limited in that sense.
NFF: I was curious about the typeface you used for the titles. I associate that look with the 1970s.
Antonio: You're the first person to ask! That's wonderful, because we put a lot of work into all the details in the movie. That actually is inspired by the Annie Hall typeface. We have a [graphic] designer -- he kind of took that and then redesigned it for her name... It is a modern story, right, to have her be the protagonist. But at the same time it does feel that it's happening in a different decade because a lot of the clothes that she's wearing she's had for many years. A lot of places she visits have been the same structures for many years.
NFF: Antonio, I can't let you go without asking you about the hat you were wearing at the screening of Dina at NextFest. That was quite a hat.
Antonio: [Laughs]. I wore a red hat through Mala Mala [Santini and Sickles' previous documentary] when we were shooting it and this time I didn't have one. You know the diner in the movie when Scott's running to work and there's a giant milkshake? That's their favorite diner and we went right before NextFest and they give out hats and I just kept it in memory -- in tribute.
NFF: There's kind of an unseen character in the film. And, Dan, that's your late father who was so important in Dina's life too. What do you think his reaction might be to you doing this film?
Dan: That's a hard question. I don't know that I'm going to answer it. My dad and I -- it's like any father-son relationship, it was complicated. The specter hanging over the film is Dina and I grappling with what it means that he's not around anymore, what that void feels like and looks like in each of our lives. I'd like to think he's proud. I know that he would be telling everybody about it.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.