Director Dan Sickles’ Wild Ride With “Dina” His Award-Winning Documentary
When director Dan Sickles was a boy he met a remarkable young woman named Dina, who despite a myriad of difficulties, would later transform his life, and the lives of other who crossed her path in his new award-winning documentary that proudly wears her name.
Dina Buno, now 50, was a high school student of Sickles’ father, Ed, and active in the Kiwanis Aktion Club, a 25-year-old leadership and community service club he started with a close friend to help adults with disabilities.
After Ed Sickles died in August 2013, his filmmaker son and native of Suburban Philadelphia, wanted to make a movie in his father’s memory, and chose Dina and the club as his subject.
Sickles’ previous movie is “MALA MALA,” a documentary about the power of transformation told through the eyes of nine trans-identifying individuals in Puerto Rico.
“Dina,” which won a coveted Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, began with test shots in the spring of 2015, and the production began in earnest in May of 2015.
Following a long interview with Dina about her backstory, the filming began with no recorded interviews. Instead, there would be long, meticulous shoots would be comprised of medium and wide shots.
There are many locations in Glenside, in Suburban Philadelphia, Northeast Philadelphia, and the Jersey Shore. The movie was completed in October, 2016, and had its premiere in January, 2017.
This movie is about an honest and outspoken Suburban Philadelphia woman, with autism, named Dina Buno, whose roller coaster of a life, often resulted in chaos and Buno’s self-doubt. Her marriage to her beloved first husband, John, ended with his 2006 death after a five-year battle with cancer. Later on, she barely survived a brutal attack from a knife-wielding ex-boyfriend.
While Buno was living on her own in an apartment in Glenside, and navigating her world, she wasn’t looking for love…but it found her in Scott Levin, now 47, a Northeast Philadelphia Walmart sales clerk, who also has autism.
The charming, funny and unique film weaves the story of Buno’s many hardships, while following her journey of courtship, marriage and the couple’s honeymoon in the Poconos. With much warmth and honesty, “Dina,” captures the cadences and candid conversations of a relationship that re-examines the notion of on-screen romance.
“This movie is about hope, survival and strength, as well as having a positive attitude toward people who think or act differently than we do,” says Darlene Anderson, a close friend of the couple, who started the club with Sickle’s father. “The film clearly shows we can all support one another.”
Sickles certainly succeeded in telling this compelling story of one unique woman, and changing her life, as well as others in her wake.
“I was always kind of like a ham on stage, so I am very excited about all of this,” Buno recently explained. “But I’m also excited to tell my story of growing up on the autism spectrum and letting parents know that I beat incredible odds. If I can do it, then their kids can also.”
Both Buno and Levin admit that married life has its challenges, and it is not “all peaches and cream,” but they love having a partner and are proud of one another and the film. For Levin he has found his soul-mate. “I am so proud of my wife, Dina, she is my rock.”
“People used to tell me I was autistic and maybe I wasn’t good enough, but this movie shows that autism doesn’t make us less. I would tell parents that children don’t come with a manual. So just take them home, count your blessings and love them unconditionally.”
What was your expectation for this movie?
DAN SICKLES: I’ve known Dina my entire life. She has actually known me since before I was born. She was very close to my dad who was her high school teacher, and then he started the Kiwanis club after she graduated. My dad and I would go to the club meetings twice a month. They planned a lot of social service events. I really grew up around the club members and like my dad, I was inspired by them. Some of my earliest memories were of those meetings, and the club is still active today.
What was the plan for the movie?
DS: A film like this requires a certain amount of experimentation.
DS: For all me and (co-director Antonio Santini) knew, Dina could have run from the alter, at her wedding.
Director Dan Sickles’ Wild Ride With “Dina” His Award-Winning Documentary
DS: We knew Dina was a generous, willing, open, and honest person, and also that she was eager to tell her story. One centerpiece [of the film] was their big this event – a wedding – which is an event that always includes awkwardness, tension, comedy, and drama. So we start with the broad concept of her wedding and begin chipping away at the other aspects of the film, namely, her aspirations in her relationship that she hadn’t articulated before. So I would say that became a major thrust of the theme.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
DS: I have always been attracted to the idea of telling stories, and to the art of telling stories. I studied acting at New York University and stumbled into, and grew into this career. One thing led to another and I here I am. Today, film is my medium, but tomorrow it may be another medium. I am inspired by what moves me and want to articulate it and share it with other people.
Was there concerns about having Dina as your leading lady in the movie?
DS: It’s kind of like a wedding/bar mitzvah mash up. It is still pretty blurry because so many things that were happening at once. Obviously, it is nerve-wracking, showing your film to an audience for the first time. At Sundance, everybody is there, and there’s a lot of energy in the tiny mountain town in the middle of winter.
I know that Scott does not enjoying traveling. How did he like Sundance?
DS: He really liked it. It was great to watch him come out of his shell. I think Scott was the guy who wanted to get married, and not necessarily make a movie about it; but it has resulted in many positive experiences for both Scott and Dina.
Talk about winning the Grand Jury Prize?
DS: To win was extremely unexpected, not because of the film, but the fact that it came from a very small crew and was made with a limited amount of money. It was made with the expectation to create something special. Having Scott and Dina at Sundance was incredibly important to me. I was able to introduce Dina and Scott to the world in real life, and introducing them on film, at the same time.
You have spent many months introducing Dina to audiences, in Philadelphia, New York and beyond.
DS: Yes, I am taking Dina to London next week, and that is another part of this crazy adventure. For her, this is the first time in their lives she and Scott will be given the dignity they lacked typically in other spaces that they have lived in. The London theatrical premiere for “Dina,” is on October 20. The movie will be expanding to China, Scandinavia, Israel, Germany and more. It is pretty cool to watch it with subtitles.
Now that Dina is attending all of these premieres and events who is helping her on the Red Carpet?
DS: She gets help from her close friend Darlene, who co-founded the Aktion Club with my dad. Dina also has a friend, Alison, who did some styling for her. In the music video starring Scott and Dina, she wore a pretty awesome Gucci skirt.
How do you see Dina’s ongoing adventures with this movie?
DS: This is just the beginning for her, and she is stepping into it in a really big way. I hope she will pace herself.
What other plans do you have for the movie?
DS: We are entered along with 15 movies that are on a short list of awards contenders, including the Oscars, the Directors Guild, and the Spirit Awards, at the Documentary Film Festival in New York City. It has been wild, and continues to be one amazing ride.
What was your father like?
DS: Being a parent you are the first and only line of defense for your kids. What was central about my dad, Ed, is how special he, and others who worked with him are to people like Dina and Scott. For someone like Dina, he listened to her and he advocated for her. He also taught her how to do practical things that taught her how to be the autonomous person that she is. It is so important as a parent, and a mentor, to advocate for children: especially those who have special needs. We really don’t have those systems in place to advocate for them.
Why is that so important?
DS: All too often people like Dina are ignored, while at the same time they feel like screaming ‘talk to me and engage with me.’ I would say that philosophically the film is about making the space for Dina to take.
What is it like watching this movie at the Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center and sharing the success with friends and family, basically a whole community that have known you for your entire life?
DS: There was a lot of love there. I really don’t think it has totally hit me yet. I still feel like I am in the middle of the tornado. It will take time to digest how this entire run has unfolded. The movie is like my kid; I feel very parental.
What has the feedback been like for your movie?
DS: The messages I have received have been awesome. I really appreciate it. The audience Q and A is great. I grew up going to the Ritz and the Ambler, [in Philadelphia], and going there as a teenager did a lot to shape who I am as a person.
Is there a legacy there?
DS: In some ways I made this film for a film-loving local teen who could go to the Ambler Theater and maybe be inspired by it.
Had you always thought about making a film about Dina?
DS: Not necessarily. Dina is obviously very personable. She’s very outgoing, she loves to meet people, and I had always been aware of her story. She’s always stood out as someone that’s very special in my mind, and around the [time of my dad’s] funeral was when we came into each other lives again, both bewildered by the incredible void my father had left behind. Part of this film is very much about the two of us reckoning with that loss, while attempting to create something honoring his legacy.
Were you worried at all about the possibility of exploitation?
DS: Dina’s bravery is inspiring in this pursuit, and as someone who has known and loved her for a long time, I couldn’t be prouder of her. She’s a pioneer in many regards. What I am afraid of is how people, especially those enabled by the anonymity of the internet, will respond to her bravery. Americans have a longstanding habit of treating middle-aged, empowered women with vitriol and disdain, so if anything, I acknowledge my new role in her life as a support and a buffer against the gross bigotry that will inevitably befall her via her exposure in the film. I’m extremely protective of her.
What do you feel are the life lessons in your movie?
DS: I want people to see it, and to talk about it. There are so many places, and opportunities to talk about this film, with Dina included, and I want to hear what people think about it. I’ve been to several question and answer sessions, and people start to understand how much Dina and Scott are like the rest of us.
What is universal about this story and this couple?
DS: Dina and Scott are every relationship; they are an iconic relationship. They are a small, quiet relationship, and I believe they can speak to everybody in different ways.