'Born to Be': Film Review | NYFF 2019

Courtesy of Born to Be
Deeply moving and humane.

Tania Cypriano's documentary follows Dr. Jess Ting as he attends to patients at the groundbreaking Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City.

Dr. Jess Ting, the principal figure of Tania Cypriano's documentary about the groundbreaking Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City, has a pithy explanation for why he was chosen to be its head surgeon.

"Essentially, they just asked everyone else, and everyone said no except for me. Everyone thought I was nuts…whatever," he shrugs. Prior to starting his position, he had never performed sexual reassignment surgery, having been a plastic surgeon specializing in breast reconstruction.

It was only four years ago that New York become one of only nine states mandating that insurance companies cover medical costs for transgender issues. Born to Be, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, chronicles Dr. Ting's efforts to provide care to the center's patients who are undergoing major bodily changes. That care can often be as much emotional as physical, since 44 percent of transgender patients attempt suicide at some point in their lives.

The documentary follows Dr. Ting, who studied at Juilliard and once aspired to a career as a classical musician (there are several scenes of him playing upright bass in his apartment, and it's clear that he's as talented a musician as he is a surgeon), as he makes his rounds and deals with a number of patients. They include Cashmere, who spent years living on the streets, spending whatever money she had on black market silicone and treatments by unlicensed doctors, with the result that her facial features are seriously distorted; Garnet, formerly Devin, a 22-year-old, Texas-raised aspiring model who becomes one of the first patients to undergo a new type of vaginoplasty that Dr. Tang has invented alleviating vaginal dryness; Jordan, who identifies as non-binary and is due to receive a penis constructed from skin and tissue from his arm; and Mahogany, a South African whose successful male modeling career was disrupted by his gender dysphoria.

Both Dr. Ting and his patients make for engaging camera subjects, and despite the seriousness of the subject matter there are welcome doses of subtle humor; when a nurse asks if anyone will be coming for her at the hospital, Mahogany replies, "Just the film crew." And for all his compassion and dedication to his patients, the doctor's driving ambition also often comes to the fore. "My goal is to make an operation that's so good that all the trans men will want to have it," he declares at one point. Later on, after a radical new surgery he's devised, dubbed the "Ting Phalloplasty," proves successful, he crows to the patient, "Doesn't that look awesome? I make a mean penis."

There are darker moments as well. The demand for the center's services is so great that there's a six-month waiting list for surgery. And not all of the patients prove satisfied, as illustrated by one person posting a bitterly complaining video on Facebook Live. Toward the end of the film, we learn that one of Dr. Ting's patients attempted suicide after undergoing multiple procedures.

By now, there has been no shortage of narrative films and documentaries dealing with transgender issues. Born to Be distinguishes itself with its sensitive, humane portrait of the dedicated Dr. Ting, his hard-working staff (some of whom are transgender themselves) and his diverse patients, who yearn merely to live in a body that reflects their inner identity.

Production company: Transformation Productions
Director: Tania Cypriano
Producer: Michelle Koo Hayashi
Executive producers: Susan Norget, Michelle Koo Hayashi, J Winkelried, Molly Fowler
Director of photography: Jeffrey Johnson
Editors: Christopher White, Scott K. Foley
Composer: Troy Herion
Venue: New York Film Festival

92 minutes