Among the many virtues of the Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City is that everyone accepts its transgender and nonbinary clients for the people they know themselves to be. As the documentary Born to Be introduces the handful of trans patients that the film will follow, each person seems to glow with the joy of the clinic’s safe spaces — despite being in the typically stress-inducing atmosphere of a hospital, facing surgery with long and painful recovery periods and uncertain outcomes.
The focus of Born to Be is plastic surgeon Jess Ting, a mild-mannered single father and classical bass player who had little contact with trans people before volunteering to become his hospital’s expert in gender-affirming surgery, the complex series of procedures developed from what used to be called “sex change operations.” Despite the many scenes of postsurgical elation and clients’ testimony about how Ting’s work changed their lives, Born to Be is not boosterism. It’s realistic about the barriers trans people face, and direct about the fact that a scalpel cannot repair deep-seated emotional damage, as one near-tragedy late in the film makes clear.
Directed by Tania Cypriano, this is a straightforward and compassionate documentary, full of neatly delivered information and respectful of its subjects, who tell of their own journeys — to a degree. Most clients keep their private lives private, sharing only those anecdotes and traumas that directly relate to their arrival at Mount Sinai. The exception is one older trans woman, who takes the film crew on a tour of the street corners where she used to turn tricks.
Whether Cypriano chose to limit her crew mostly to the hospital or whether subjects declined to be more forthcoming isn’t clear. But during this particularly stressful time for trans rights in the U.S., Born to Be is an island of calm determination and normalization. Like Ting himself, it’s remarkable in part because everything about it is so evidently ordinary. Call it quietly transformative.
Available to rent starting Nov. 18 via grailmoviehouse.com