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Film Review: In “Born to Be,” Authenticity Is True Liberation

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 25th, 2020

Film poster: “Born to Be”

Born to Be (Tania Cypriano, 2019) 4 out of 4 stars.

Even as transgender men, women and non-binary people gain greater acceptance in our 21st-century world, they continue to face enormous hurdles in their journey towards self-actualization. Even in places where there is little to no societal disapprobation, surgical procedures to change one’s biological sex – or, rather, to affirm one’s true gender – are expensive, and often come with a long waitlist, given the few specialists capable of performing them. For the cisgender among us, it is hard to imagine what it must be like to live inside a body that does not represent you as you see yourself. Such gender dysphoria takes its toll: the rates of suicide and suicide attempts among transgender people are high. Recent legal and medical advances have, in certain locales, made things easier (a relative descriptor, to be sure), though challenges remain.

In Born to Be, her intimate and poignant new documentary, director Tania Cypriano (Grandma Has a Video Camera) explores how one Manhattan doctor is working tirelessly to treat as many patients as he and his clinic, the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery can handle. News flash: it’s not nearly enough. Still, Dr. Jess Ting and his dedicated staff do their very best, and Cypriano is right there, camera in hand, embedded in the office, the home and even the operating room, not only with Ting, but with those he cares for, who are here equal partners in the narrative. A plastic surgeon by training, Ting responded to the call to action when New York became the ninth state to require insurance companies to cover gender-affirming surgery, abandoning the breast augmentations and reductions he had theretofore been doing for something of greater consequence. Between his story and those of his patients, the film is rich with true-life tales of courage and sacrifice.

l-r: Dr. Jess Ting (he/him) and Jordan (they/them) in BORN TO BE ©Kino Lorber

Beyond Ting, we meet Cashmere, Garnet, Jordan, Mahogany and Shawn, their respective gender pronouns always shown in their lower thirds (as they are for everyone who appears on screen). Whether they see Dr. Ting for breast removal or implantation, a phalloplasty or vaginoplasty, facial feminization, tracheal shave or more, they must confront not only the barriers of time and money (even with insurance), but internalized self-hatred. The ones whose friends and family we see at least have that level of emotional support, though others are more alone. Hanging over the movie is a constant sense of urgency, given the very real fact, as Ting explains, that some patients have killed themselves while waiting. That’s his great motivator: the fear that he will fail to meet the needs of those he serves.

A gentle, hard-working soul, Ting is not without a healthy ego, eager to make his mark in this new field and happy to announce how he has improved on established methods. Divorced with three kids (who barely appear) and a dog (who does), Ting spends his days and nights in apparent devotion to his calling. His burden, however, pales in comparison to that of his patients. It’s quite moving to see them weighing the costs and benefits of the changes ahead, knowing that to do nothing would be worse. Their valor is inspiring; may they be beacons of hope for all who seek the freedom that only true authenticity can bring.

Garnet (she/her) in BORN TO BE ©Kino Lorber
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is a former cohost of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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