Credit: NYFF
Before We Vanish by Sam Thomas-Redfern Film

Born to Be | Tania Cypriano

November 24, 2020

Born to Be tackles important subject matter but too often treats the individuals at its heart as subjects rather than partners in the documentary’s creation.

Born to Be, directed by Tania Cypriano, takes as its subject New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the multitude of stories belonging to the transgender patients currently going through some form of surgical transition. Given the creation of new methods and procedures, this film has been released at a significant time in the history and development of trans medicine. Comprised of footage taken at the hospital — meetings, check-ups, and the moments before and after surgeries — Born to Be focuses largely on the work of Dr. Jess Ting and his interactions with his patients. In addition to this, we’re shown a number of more intimate explorations detailing the lives — past and present — of those transitioning, which helps weave together their experiences with the intricacies of pioneering new medical procedures. At the moment, access to the care seen throughout this film is limited and subject to a large waiting line, so one of its central tensions is the great stress placed upon both staff and prospective patients because of their knowledge of the urgent nature of the hospital’s work.

Dr. Ting’s role in the film occasionally slips over into a “great man” portrait, an understandable instinct in depicting a person whose labor proves beneficial for so many. And yet, given his relative distance from the lived experience of his patients, there’s a risk in having him mediate such an exploration of this subject. If there is one major issue, it’s that the film hampers its own ability to convey the protracted struggle that transitioning people face, treating them more as subjects than as partners in the creation of this documentary. Contextual information often adheres to a reductive desire for brevity, and even the mention of one patient’s suicide attempt comes as a surprise simply because her struggle has been so flimsily drawn. Born to Be is at its best when the voices of its subject serve not only to edify but also to help the audience gain an intimate understanding of the procedures of those who are transitioning. As such, the film can be taken as a testament to medical progress — and a successful one, too. But it delivers on as many fronts as it misses, leaving viewers with the impression that there’s simply much more that needs to be said.

Published as part of Before We Vanish | November 2020.
Originally published as part of New York Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.