There has never been a film like Dina. The documentary, which won the U.S. Documentary Grand Jury Prize prize at Sundance earlier this year and was released in New York on Friday with more locations in coming weeks, plays like a quirky indie rom-com. It’s a slice of working-class life just outside of Philadelphia that focuses on the engagement and eventual wedding of Dina Buno and Scott Levin. Eschewing “confessional” interviews to camera, directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini keep the action entirely vérité and generally far enough away from their subjects so as to make the viewer feel like she or he is peeking in on something private.
It’s an intimate movie full of, and concerning, affection. Dina and Scott are both on the spectrum (Dina has multiple diagnoses, including OCD and PTSD) and remarkably articulate about their feelings. Dina, in particular, verbalizes so much that she makes tangible the great amount of work she is putting into keeping happy and maintaining her relationship—one of the movie’s motifs concerns Dina and Scott’s differing attitudes toward sex (she craves it with him, and he’s mostly indifferent).
I know Dan and Antonio is my ex (I met both directors when I interviewed them about their last documentary, 2014's Mala Mala), but even without a personal connection to this movie, I know it would appeal to me as someone with a particular interest in media about real-life people with disabilities. Whenever such films or TV shows are discussed, though, the question of exploitation is inevitable. In his New York Times review, for example, Glenn Kenny referenced “suspicions about [the filmmakers’] motivations and ethics” without specifying exactly what those suspicions are.
I often find the exploitation argument condescending to the subject who is supposedly being exploited as it assumes they don’t know what they’re doing and have no agency about their life decisions. I think Dina feels the same way.
“It’s not about exploitation,” said Dina, when I interviewed her last week at the Jezebel office. “I’m a grown woman. I just turned 50... I’m living for myself, regardless of people who don’t like it. It’s kind of a freedom to say not everybody’s going to like you and to live for everybody else is almost rough ‘cause not everybody’s going to be your friend out there. And that’s a celebration for a person who’s autistic... People want to tell me that people on the spectrum are going to get hurt, but that’s reality. Everybody gets hurt.”
Dina is sharp and sensitive and astonishingly open. An edited version of our conversation about her life, her movie, her trauma, her triumphs is embedded below.