Q&A: The doc Dina is a love story first, a diagnosis second

Directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini want to disabuse people of the notion that their documentary Dina is, “an Asperger romance.”

The film - which won the Grand Jury doc prize at Sundance (and features guitar soundtrack music by actor Michael Cera) - follows the days leading up to the wedding of a couple in suburban Philadelphia, Dina Buno and Scott Levin. That they have quirks and tics that can be categorized medically is secondary to their often humourously-contrasting personalities.

Dina - whom Sickles has known most his life – is a previous widow and a survivor of an abusive relationship. She has a strong personality and opinions.

Levin (who works as a Wal-Mart greeter) is quieter, expressing himself in bursts of trivia and song lyrics. But he has a quirkier side too, booking a honeymoon suite with a martini-glass Jacuzzi, the most memorable visual in the movie.

Scott Levin and Dina Buno in the documentary Dina

Scott Levin and Dina Buno in the documentary Dina

“We didn’t want to frame Dina’s identity and her existence by any diagnosis,” Sickles says.

“We’re using people-first language, which is very important to people from this community. There is very big difference between saying, ‘There’s an autistic person,’ versus ‘Oh, that’s a person who’s on the spectrum or neuro-diverse.’

“We wanted to honour their personhood, and show two people with all their complexities.”

Sickles and Antonio spoke to Original-Cin’s Jim Slotek in advance of Dina’s run Nov. 3 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto, the Hyland in London and the Mayfair in Ottawa.

ORIGINAL-CIN: First of all, where do I get one of those martini-glass Jacuzzis?

SICKLES: (Both laugh) “They’re pretty hard to come by. You may have to take a trip to the Poconos.”

OC: It’s hard for anybody to be watched. How did Dina and Scott take to having a camera following them around? Did they ever object?

SANTINI: “There is one scene at the beginning of the movie where she’s drinking coffee and she spills it and the way it’s cut it’s kind of comedic. But for Dina at first, because she has a tic that connects to her Tourette’s diagnosis (Buno has what her mother describes as “a smorgasbord”of conditions). She was scared that someone was going to make fun of her.

“She’s 50 now, and throughout the years growing up, she has encountered a lot of criticism because of the way she behaves and her diagnosis. The parts where her diagnosis was more visible, those were harder for her.”

SICKLES: “For all the quote-unquote taboo subject matter that’s in the film, the only thing that Scott is embarrassed about is when he’s off-key or off-rhythm sometimes when he’s singing in the film.”

OC: Let’s talk about the taboos. You follow Dina and Scott into the bedroom, which is, I think, where most documentaries would stop.

SICKLES: “I will say this isn’t the first bedroom we’ve ever shot in. Our first film (Mala Mala, about transgender people in Puerto Rico) included the bedrooms of two of our characters. I don’t know how atypical that is. Maybe we can pat ourselves on the back for creating a space where people feel that they can be vulnerable and not be taken advantage of.”

OC: Given that you, Dan, have known Dina all your life, it strikes me that a friendship was at stake if anything in this movie went wrong.

“I guess I hadn’t considered it in that way. The aim was always to dignify and validate Dina’s experience. She’s a collaborator with us even now for the (movie’s release). She’s an integral part of our team. And all the things we were able to capture, that came from hours of discussions with Scott and Dina.

“Dina, to date, was the most mature person we’ve worked with in this capacity. She understands that there are things in the film that don’t necessarily make her look very glamourous, but they are necessary to communicate her complexity.

“Early on, Antonio and I did a three-day master interview with Dina, just to sort of follow her whole history, to ask the questions we wanted to ask and to see how far we could take each other.

“And there was one exchange we were having with her, about how she perceives the difference to be between her community and neuro-typical people - what we might call ‘normal’ quote-unquote.

“And, finally, she said, ‘Well the difference is you guys lie.’ And when she said that, it was kind of like ‘Oh, whoa.’ To me it’s pretty true. I think neuro-typical people are animals of evasion and deception and mask-wearing.

“And Dina’s not. She’s very transparent. She says what she means and she means what she says. That not only makes her an extraordinary person, but as a documentary subject and a collaborator that’s sort of the ideal.”

OC: Given all the years you’ve known her, what inspired you to make the movie now?

SICKLES: “The film picks up at this particular place in time, but that doesn’t include, like, the story of how in Third Grade she taught herself how to read after a teacher told her she’d never be able to. That doesn’t include the story of her getting her teachers assistant certificate so she could get a job. It doesn’t include her teaching herself how to walk again after the stabbing (from her now-jailed ex) and after being in a coma for three days, when the doctors told her she’d probably be paralyzed from the waist down.

“So, when Dina told us she was getting married again, I was like, ‘Well, this is something worth investigation. How can somebody find that desire to be in a relationship after all of this?’ It was like lightning striking at the right place and time.”

OC: Given all that, were you ever intent on telling her whole story, and not just the wedding?

SANTINI: “Dan and I aren’t always trying to make pure documentaries or tell whole histories. With our first movie, Mala Mala, there were nine individuals that identified as trans. But we wanted people to understand that this wasn’t Trans 101. You weren’t going to come in and we were going to teach you everything you needed to know about being trans.”

OC: I’m sure it meant a lot to you guys, but what did it mean to Dina to win that award at Sundance?

SICKLES: “I think, to be honest, the prize could have come from anywhere and I think Dina would appreciate it just the same.

“It’s kind of overwhelming for her, because for so much of her life, she’s been saying ‘Hey listen to me, listen to me, I have things to say.’ And now for the first time in both their lives, people are lending them dignity and respect they’ve never really seen before.”