Dina’s getting married in a few weeks and there’s still so much to do. She has to move her boyfriend, Scott, from his parents’ house to her apartment, and settle him in to only the second home he’s ever had, all while juggling his schedule as an early morning Wal-Mart door greeter. She has to get her dress, confirm arrangements with the venue, and make peace with her family, who remain nervous for their beloved Dina after the death of her first husband and the string of troubled relationships that followed. Throughout it all, in the face of obstacles large and small, Dina remains indomitable. She’s overcome tragedy and found the man she wants and, at age 48, is bent on building the life for herself that she believes she deserves. Dina is unstoppable, a force of nature, and as the star of her own life story, she’s an unconventional neuro-divergent movie protagonist the likes of which hasn’t been seen before.
I spoke with directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles about their moving, unusual, and terrifically entertaining film Dina which won the Grand Jury Prize for documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Danny Miller: It’s so great to get to spend time with someone like Dina in a film like this since neurologically diverse people are so rarely seen in films just living their regular lives. And they need more exposure, just like, for example, more depictions of LGTBQ people has helped change public perspectives about them.
Dan Sickles: I completely agree. When you do see depictions of people who are neuro-diverse, nine times out of ten they’re pretty flat — they’re almost used as props.
And often way worse than “flat” — they’re depicted as adorable mascots, innocent little chidren, or crazy sociopaths. What I love about your approach to Dina’s story is that we feel we really get to know her and can relate to her joys and struggles. Still, with any film that showcases people dealing with such issues, I’m sure you knew you’d be open to criticism that you’re somehow “exploiting” your subects. How do you grapple with that?
Antonio Santini: In one of our first visits with Dina when we were thinking about doing this film, the first thing she showed us was a manuscript for a memoir she was writing about her life called I Was Born on the Wrong Planet. And in that memoir she told the story of how unwelcoming many people have been to her since she was born, how she came to an understanding of herself from the all the things she lacked or was doing wrong according to other people. Year after year as she grew up, she began to understand that she was different based on those reactions. Dan and I were knew that most of the documentaries about people who are neuro-diverse usually have other people speaking on their behalf — their parents will talk for them, they’ll have their doctors explaining their condition, while the actual individuals are almost used as B-roll in the background as other people are speaking for them. We had no interest in making a film like that. Dina was our true collaborator and she was bursting at the seams to speak up for herself. She was approaching 50 and she spent a long period of her life wanting to prove to her community and to herself that she was capable of doing things that she was always told she couldn’t do such as being in love, getting married, having a job, having kids, being social, having sexual desire — all these things that were important to her.
Boy, I hope a publisher grabs up I Was Born on the Wrong Planet. After seeing this film, I’d love to hear more about her childhood experiences.
Dan: I hope so, too, she’s been writing a lot. The film focuses on a certain part of her life and a specific part of her history but Dina has plenty of other stories, too. She’s someone who has really persevered through so much more than is discussed in the film and those are things she still wants to talk about.
She seems like a documentarian’s dream subject. Were there any topics that were off-limits?
The way we approached shooting was more like a conversation, it’s not like we would open the front door to her apartment and start recording without speaking to one another. The film is very collaborative. You don’t hear Antonio or my voice in the film or see our faces but we were very much in the room talking about what was going on and what she wanted to do that day.
I can only imagine the ratio of film you shot to how much ended up in the film, but it’s so masterfully edited and cinematic. Going through all that material, did you ever leave anything out because you worried it would give audiences the wrong impression of Dina?
We had around 550 hours of footage, so it was a lot to condense down into 100 minutes! You know, I’ve known Dina for my entire life, my Dad was one of her high school teachers and our families remained very close. So it’s always been part of my life to be concerned with Dina’s well being. And that’s very reciprocated — she calls me all the time to ask how I’m doing. So we’ve been in this relationship together for about 29 years now which started long before I ever picked up a camera and that relationship will continue until I die — because Dina will probably live to be 120. So it was always a conversation. We discussed each scene. And there was a lot of talk in our editing room about what to include and not to include and how to frame certain things.
Of course, Dina’s boyfriend, Scott, is very, very different from Dina, much less transparent emotionally. As filmmakers, did you worry about how the camera present during fairly intimate conversations might be affecting him?
Antonio: Well, with Scott, it started when we were filming Dina and he would just naturally be in the background of the shots, he would just walk in. We’d say, “Hey, Scott, you know you’re in the frame right now, right? Do you feel comfortable with that? “ And little by little, he became an important a part of the movie. Dina had always wanted a movie made about her, so we started to see Dina as the protagonist, she has really good comedic timing, but what was cool about Scott was that he was so vulnerable and showed his affection in such a refreshing way that you don’t typically see depicted in the male partner in romantic stories. So it was really sweet to see Scott be the vulnerable one and have Dina be the teacher who’s kind of showing him all the stuff that she’s learned.
Have both of them been involved in promoting the film and going to screenings?
Dan: Dina has always been very proud of the film and she’s an amazing promoter. Scott has seen what it’s become and it’s definitely something he’s proud of as well. Both of them are going to be running around with us for our premieres and Scott is really excited to show it to everyone from his Wal-Mart in Philadelphia — they’re going to be at our Philadelphia premiere. He sees this film as a way of communicating what’s going on with him internally much better than he’d ever be able to articulate using words. He’s really happy about that.
One of the most poignant parts of the film is the way you show how Dina and Scott deal with their very different sex drives. Again, as you said earlier, it’s refreshing to see someone like Dina talking so unabashedly about her sex drive but I think it’s also great that we don’t see a compete resolution to this issue during the course of the film.
Antonio: What’s really cool is that when we premiered at Sundance, we knew, of course, that we were telling this specific real-life story but I guess we hadn’t thought that a lot of people would see the film as a kind of romantic comedy. A lot of people who came up to us after the screenings were around Dina’s age and would say things like “Oh, that’s just like me and my husband,” or, “God, I still don’t know how to say that to my partner.” Dina is really speaking to a certain demographic and she represents a lot of desires that many people have .
I found her inspiring on so many levels — someone who is not afraid to bring up something in the moment even if its socially uncomfortable to do so; someone who has survived a horribly traumatic incident and has resumed living her life. These are things many of us can all relate to and learn from.
Dan: Something that I hope comes across in the film is how we can all aspire to be more like Dina and Scott. So often in this world, people are not appreciated for their eccentricities, but everyone has special skills and insights. Sometimes people say “Oh, wow, they’re just like us,” and that’s great, I want to say, “Yeah, absolutely!” But I also want to point out that they have some very special qualities that we don’t have. Did you notice how at one point Scott rattled off the names of three operatic tenors in a kind of offhand way? He could have gone on and on, his knowledge of that world is incredible. But unfortunately he is rarely appreciated for possessing that knowledge and having that specific kind of intelligence.