Telling an ordinary story with extraordinary subjects, “Dina” boldly defies the conventions of nonfiction film. The winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival, “Dina” presents a compelling tale of the romance between real-life Dina Buno and Scott Levin, a couple on the autism spectrum. Co-directed and produced by Daniel Sickles, a former teacher of Dina’s, and Antonio Santini, the film provides an insightful, empathetic look into the lives of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The filming is so unobtrusive and natural that it contributes to viewers easily forgetting that the film is unscripted.
As we learn from her mother, Dina suffers from “a smorgasbord” of mental health conditions, including Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, developmental disability, depression and anxiety.
At 48 years old, Dina is about to begin her second marriage with an upcoming wedding to Scott, who also has Asperger’s syndrome. As Dina often tells both friends and strangers, she lost her first husband to cancer, and in the years following his death, she suffered a violent stabbing at the hands of a boyfriend whom she unaffectedly deems a “psycho.” Dina’s ability to recover from these traumas is an impressive demonstration of her strength, something of which she is very proud.
“Dina” is a wonderfully unconventional documentary. Unlike that of many other nonfiction films, the camerawork in “Dina” is smooth and natural. The shots are intentionally desaturated in a manner that indicates authenticity, and the sequence of scenes is easy to follow.
Dina and Scott are unbothered by the presence of cameras, which allows viewers to have an intimate look at many of their private moments. At one point in the film, Dina, who is constantly frustrated with Scott’s seeming lack of interest in sex, buys him “The Timeless Guide to Lovemaking” and flips through the pages with him, asking if he knows certain things. The lack of sexual intimacy in their relationship is a source of discontent for Dina, who has many discussions with Scott about it and shares with their friends, “I’m tired of being rejected. Think about having disabilities and people rejecting you your whole life.”
The filmmakers’ approach to Dina and Scott’s relationship allows viewers to see that their while their intellectual and developmental disabilities are certainly challenging, they do not prevent them from leading regular lives. Dina admits to her mother that “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” and “I Am Cait” are her guilty pleasures, and later in the film, she describes to Scott why she believes that Hillary Clinton should win the 2016 presidential election.
Viewers also see Dina’s bachelorette party, which features a male stripper. In scenes like these, Dina is eager to engage in the fun and get rowdy with her friends — there is no indication that she is not neurotypical. Through such moments, the film demonstrates to audiences that having a disability and leading a regular life are not mutually exclusive.
The film’s directors made the smart decision not to include documentary-style interviews or additional background information. Santini and Sickles allow viewers to develop a more natural understanding of the daily lives of Dina and Scott; without knowing the details of the couple’s disabilities, viewers must take every situation at face value. This approach also enables Dina and Scott to define themselves on their own terms rather than through medical labels. Though audiences may wish for more concrete information, the lack of background information ultimately contributes to the film’s goal of normalizing developmental disabilities by not focusing solely on them.
“Dina” also provides commentary on relationships and the importance of communication. Audiences are privy to the inner workings of Scott and Dina’s relationship, such as both the sweet kisses and constant verbal support that they share and the times in which they must help each other overcome personal challenges, often regarding their own disabilities. Furthermore, Dina’s eccentricity and outspoken confidence are compelling to viewers and contribute to the unscripted feel of the film.
At the end of the film, viewers finally hear the audio of the police call that Dina’s boyfriend made after he stabbed her, a frightening and upsetting supplement to Dina’s often unaffected descriptions of the experience. Though this part of the film is gut-wrenching, hearing it solidifies the viewers’ notion that Dina is impressively positive considering her past experiences. As she shares with a stranger on the bus on the morning of her wedding, “The theme of my wedding is butterflies because I’ve turned into a beautiful butterfly over the years.”
“Dina” provides an intimate and enlightening look at the day-to-day challenges of individuals, and in particular, couples, on the autism spectrum while also providing a comical and relatable commentary on adult relationships and their struggles. “Dina” is a nonfiction film in a class of its own.