Review by Sean Boelman
Tania Cypriano’s documentary Born to Be takes a seemingly small-scale story and uses it to deliver some really interesting commentary on the bigger picture. Powerful in the expected ways, this film is almost enough to restore faith in a humanity that all too often lacks empathy and compassion.
The movie tells the story of Dr. Jess Ting, one of the country’s leading specialists in transgender medicine and surgery, having innovated several new approaches to gender-affirming procedures. But rather than using Ting’s story to inspire, Cypriano takes it to create a portrait of allyship in regards to the LGBTQ community.
Ultimately, Ting (and by extension, the film) couldn’t care less about what the audience thinks of him or his patients. Some of the conflict revolves around Ting trying to convince insurance companies that the services he provides should be considered essential, and it’s heartbreaking to see the complete disregard that the system has for these people.
The perspective which the movie takes on Ting is quite interesting. The intention clearly is not to portray him as a hero, but that’s how it comes across sometimes, even if inadvertently. Portions of the film which discuss how Ting was the only one of the group willing to take on the “challenge” or how he made sacrifices to become a doctor and help others are compelling but seemingly run counter to the overall message.
That said, the movie does a great job of showcasing the stories of some of Ting’s patients. The film doesn’t linger on the traumas associated with their dysphoria, instead focusing on the feeling of hope that they have because their external and internal images will be able to align thanks to Ting’s work.
Yet despite the fact that Cypriano is juggling the stories of both Ting and his patients, the movie manages to feel quite complete even with a short runtime. In just over ninety minutes, Cypriano is able to tell this story in a way that has a legitimate emotional impact and offers an encouraging message.
Cypriano’s film takes a mostly traditional fly-on-the-wall approach to the story, but her minimalistic approach does a really great job of emphasizing the emotion of the story. The movie also doesn’t fall back on the cheaper ways of getting a reaction, instead letting the power of the material speak for itself.
Born to Be is an amazing film by the power of its story, making it a strong entry in a year already filled with great documentaries. Although its understated nature would initially imply otherwise, this is a very important movie.
Born to Be screens online in partnership with indie theaters beginning November 18. A list of participating locations can be found here.