Not everyone in Dina Buno’s world understood why she agreed to let cameras follow her around Philadelphia for more than a year. But they’ll get it after watching the documentary that shares her name, a jarring but exultant reminder that life is what you make it.
“A lot of people were skeptical of me … why are you putting yourself out there?” says the 50-year-old Glenside resident. “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.”
That confidence is the unflappable engine that powers Dina, the second feature from directors Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini. Billed as a “a real-life romantic comedy,” it hones in on the oh-so-Philly courtship of Buno and her now-husband Scott Levin, from SEPTA bus rides and Jersey Shore day trips to their Tiffany Diner nuptials and honeymoon in the Poconos.
It is very romantic and very funny, but it’s the “real-life” portion of that descriptor that works hardest. Buno and Levin are members of the neurodiverse community, which encompasses those on the autism spectrum, as well as individuals with Asperger syndrome and a multitude of other neurological differences. As the film progresses, we slowly learn that outgoing, outspoken Buno, in addition to battling many barriers bundled with her status, struggles daily to overcome a heart-rending past tarnished by death and violence.
Authentic neurodiverse perspectives — particularly as they pertain to universal topics like love, loss, and relationships — have never been easy to find on screen. Sickles, 29, kept that in mind as he embarked upon a personal project that won the grand jury prize for a U.S. documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
“When you’re pushed to the margins of society, it demands that you create your own politics,” says the Upper Dublin High School and NYU grad, who now lives in Paris. “You find your own way to live as truthfully and honestly as you can, knowing that a lot of your existence is framed by this diagnosis.”
Sickles had a serious leg up when it came to capturing Buno at her realest — she knew his father before Sickles was born. The late Edward Sickles taught special education for years at Abington High School, first getting to know Buno as a student in the early 1980s. Through mentorship and neurodiverse support groups like the Abington Aktion Club, which the elder Sickles founded, Buno became an honorary member of the Sickles clan, babysitting Dan and attending his school plays. Buno remembers times when she would call the Sickles home, looking to connect with Ed for advice. “If he wasn’t available, [a young Dan] would say, ‘Why don’t you talk to me?’ ” recalls Buno. “That’s how mature he was.”
The Aktion Club, which we see gathering for meetings early in the doc, was the initial narrative focus for Sickles and Santini, NYU friends whose award-winning 2014 debut, Mala Mala, took viewers inside the transgender community of Santini’s native Puerto Rico. “We were definitely trying to figure out what the best thing to ground it would be,” says Santini. When Buno surprised Sickles with the news that she was engaged to Levin, years after her first husband, John, had died from cancer, they knew they had their hook.
“She was opening herself to the possibility of finding love again,” says Sickles. “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.”
Filming, which lasted from the summer of 2015 to the fall of the following year, saw Sickles and Santini shadow Buno and Levin in their local day-to-day activities. They ended up with 550 hours of raw footage. Aside from ravishing cinematography that turns Levin’s early-morning SEPTA commute into an irreverent action sequence and makes the Neshaminy Mall parking lot pop like an oil painting, the most palpable technical aspect of Dina is how remarkably unobtrusive Sickles and Santini remain throughout. With the couple as our tour guides, we sit as silent eavesdroppers on the private conversations all of us have but none of us broadcast. Unremarkable nail salons, bowling alleys, and NJ Transit depots transform into raw confessional booths where Buno and Levin air their most most human hopes and insecurities — including plenty of frank talk about sex, a topic rarely discussed with this level of candor by anyone, let alone neurodiverse people.
“I’ve heard people say what they found so surprising about the movie is how unfiltered they are,” says Sickles. “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.”
Dina had its local premiere at the Kimmel Center on Monday night, a red-carpet event attended by the filmmakers, stars, and a large contingent of family, friends, and coworkers. For Buno, however, it’s the feedback from people she doesn’t know that charges her up the most. Though her instincts correctly surmised her story would resonate with the neurodiverse community, meeting these admirers face to face at screenings and film festivals has been fulfilling. Parents of neurodiverse children, in particular, have been going out of their way to commend Buno for her attitude and resilience.
“They want to learn more about my life — they’re thrilled I’m giving [them] hope,” says Buno, newly motivated to expand her career as a public speaker. “I’m not a label. I’m a human being.”
Opens Friday at Ritz at the Bourse, Ambler Theater and AMC Voorhees.