Healthy Living

Recent Documentary Showcases an Autism Relationship

Recent Documentary Showcases an Autism Relationship

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Dina Buno is the star and subject of a documentary film directed and produced by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, titled Dina, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

She is also on the autism spectrum, as is her companion, Scott Levin. The documentary follows a year in their lives as they prepare to get married, which is no small task for these two as they work through previous relationships and the social difficulties which come with being on the spectrum.

A real-life romantic comedy

When you watch the trailer, you do not quite get the feeling that this is a documentary. It feels more like an indie dramatic comedy, with a touch of whimsical cinematography. The characters feel like quirky actors, skilled at their roles, not real people in real situations.

But when you dig a little deeper, you find out that this is indeed a documentary. Dina Buno is not only on the spectrum, but she also has obsessive compulsive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder. Her fiancé, Scott Levin, is on the spectrum as well, with Asperger’s syndrome.

All of the trials both Dina and Scott go through were real, recorded on tripods by Dan Sickles, who is not just some stranger. He’s known Dina his entire life and knows just how to capture her charming personality on the camera. It helps that his father, the late Edward Sickles, was a special education teacher.

Edward even helped found the Abington Aktion Club, a support group for the neurodiverse. Dina would often call Edward at home but he was not always available. Dan would answer the phone, as a young child, and say, “Why don’t you talk to me?”

This was the 1980’s. Dina has recently turned fifty, though she was in the mid-to-late forties while the documentary was being filmed.

Making the film

Filming took place in and around Philadelphia, from summer of 2015 to fall of 2016.

Dina lives in Glenside, which is just northwest of Philadelphia. The film follows her and her fiancé Scott on bus rides, to the beach, through the wedding, and even to their honeymoon, which took place in the Pocono Mountains of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

The filmmakers did not just follow Dina and Scott to romantic locations. Some of the scenes take place in a nail salon, a bowling alley, or a mall parking lot. Normal places where normal people have normal activities, even if they are on the spectrum.

In fact, the film starts with Dina in a dentist office, explaining to the assistant which parts of the procedure she is comfortable with. Then she asks the assistant to hold her hand while her tooth is drilled.

Not everyone understood why Dina agreed to have cameras follow her life. Says Dina, “A lot of people were skeptical of me . . . ‘why are you putting yourself out there?’ But I go with my gut. I knew it would be positive. I’m a strong woman and I believe in doing what you love.”

Doing what she loved ended up giving Dan Sickles five hundred and fifty hours of raw footage to edit together into an emotional and worthwhile film.

According to the viewers, he succeeded.

Relationships are not easy

The documentary is not a series of high points as Dina and Scott get engaged then married. Rough spots in their relationships are also depicted.

Scott is sweet and tries to be loving, but he is not nearly as comfortable with intimacy as she is. His job is also as a door greeter for Walmart and he has never lived by himself before. He has to learn more about the world at the same time as he’s learning how to have a relationship with Dina.

For her part, Dina has many things to work through before tying the knot with Scott. While he is inexperienced with relationships, this is not her first bout with betrothal. Her first husband passed away from cancer. A previous boyfriend violently assaulted her.

Even parts of relationships which are often rarely discussed with other people are bared to the camera. Dina talks about her sex life with Scott and the difficulties there, since she wants passionate and physical intimacy that he has trouble expressing.

This part of the movie is the most surprising to some. Neurotypical people are often quiet on the subject of sex, neurodivergent more so.

Sickles had this to say about the topic: “I’ve heard people say what they found so surprising about the movie is how unfiltered they are. The other way of looking at that is how filtered we are. We’re animals of deception and evasion and mask-wearing. Dina and Scott are the opposite.”

He had initially been surprised when he heard that Dina was engaged, years after her first husband had died. He said, “She was opening herself to the possibility of finding love again. That takes a lot of courage for anybody. But people like Dina aren’t lended that sort of consideration--that they can be brave role models.”

Indeed, many depictions of people with autism in the media also portray them either as savants or as barely functioning humans, a far cry from the real world and the wide variety of people on the spectrum. They are the hero because of superhero powers, not because of who they are as a person.

Dina bucks this trend.

An award-winning film

Dina did not just play at the Sundance Film Festival. It also played at the Palm Beach International Film Festival, the Sarasota Film Festival, and the Independent Film Festival Boston.

It also won four awards. At Sundance, it won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize, at Palm Beach it won the award for Best Romance, Sarasota gave it the Special Jury Prize for Honesty and Humanity, and at Boston it took home the Karen Schmeer Award for Excellence in Documentary Editing.

The International Documentary Association also gave it Best Feature, and Dan Sickle won his own award, the Producer’s Vision Award at the Sun Valley Film Festival.

The raw emotions from the relationship are beautifully put together, alongside humor and beautiful cinematography. Eric Kohn from Indiewire says of Dina, “Its lead gives the best performance of the year in the story of her life.”

It’s hard to believe that Dina is a normal person, and not an actress with many years of experience.

From the film forward

Dina is not yet finished appearing before the public. She is using the documentary as a launching point to become a well-known public speaker. Part of this is because she enjoys the feedback from people she has never met.

The neurodiverse community, covering both people on the spectrum and those with other neurological conditions, has reacted positively to the film. Parents of children on the spectrum seem to particularly appreciate the film and have often approached Dina to pay her compliments on putting herself out there.

“They want to learn more about my life--they’re thrilled I’m giving [them] hope,” says Dina. It is important to remember that she is not some actress playing the role of a character with autism, that it really is her on the screen.

Final thoughts

Dina is a documentary, heartwarming, raw, and beautiful, about two people on the spectrum who fall in love then have to figure out how to love each other. It is a powerful and accurate depiction of autism and other aspects of neurodivergent life, and is well worth the watch.