Changing lives is all in a day’s work for Dr. Jess Ting, the plastic surgeon profiled in Tania Cypriano’s thoughtful and sensitive documentary “Born to Be.” Ting performs gender-affirming surgeries at Manhattan’s Mount Sinai Hospital, which opened a center for transgender medicine and surgery after the State of New York decided that health insurance must cover medically necessary procedures. His work, which involves everything from facial feminization surgery to vaginoplasty and phalloplasty, is in high demand.
“When they asked, everyone said no, except me,” Ting said in explaining why he became a specialist in this field.
His patients, as the film shows, are extremely grateful.
Documentary showcases the transgender medicine program at Mount Sinai Hospital
“Born to Be” sits in on the emotional consultations Ting has with his transgender prospective patients who come to see him. His compassion shines through always and shows why he has gained the trust of the community. He discusses surgeries and the scars that may go with them, answering questions with grace. He manages to comfort patients even in cases where he is pioneering a new technique. His goal, he explains, is to make his patients “feel whole,” so that their external body matches their internal identity.
Ting said that he developed empathy for the challenges transgender people face after hearing about the suicide of a trans individual. (The film states that 44 percent of the transgender population have attempted suicide.) He realized that transition means different things to different people — it can be simply dressing in line with one’s gender identity or undertaking confirmation surgery — and that spurred his goal of helping the community.
His enthusiasm with one patient, Devin, is particularly striking. Likewise, his rapport with another, Cashmere, is inspiring. As Cashmere explains the various surgeries she had — and even regretted, because she wanted to complete her transition so badly — Ting offers sympathy and reassurance.
Several subjects in the film — including Ting — get the opportunity to discuss their backstory, which make them complete three-dimensional characters in the documentary. Ting explains that he was a student at Julliard who taught himself to play the bass violin, but he gave up what he loved to become a doctor.
One patient, Mahogany, reveals she once worked as an in-demand male model in South Africa, but walked away from success because of her gender dysphoria. In contrast, Cashmere recalls her life on the streets and the dangers of doing sex work.
The happiness Ting’s clients express is infectious. One patient, marvels at her new breasts; other clients are thrilled to have new genitalia (though some are unable to look at what’s been done). The post-surgery scenes are warm, and viewers will feel happy “visiting” with the patients. A scene where Devin experiences discomfort using a dilator on her new vagina, however, is difficult to watch.
“Born to Be” briefly takes viewers into the operating room, but there are very few scenes of actual surgery, each discreetly filmed. Mostly there are discussions of procedures, such as one Ting has with Jordan, who is having a phalloplasty procedure. Ting explains he will remove skin and an artery from Jordan’s forearm to create the phallus. Later in the film, he pioneers a new way of forming a penis because he thinks it can be done better and without having to scar the forearm.
Such efforts — he also created a better vaginoplasty procedure — are why Ting is viewed as a superstar in his field. His waiting room is full, and his waitlist is six to twelve months. He wants more doctors to learn these surgeries, and even trains one woman, Bella, in a fellowship program. But Ting also has to fight against intolerance, hatred, disgust, and misunderstanding about the trans community. He has a choice response for a troll on Facebook who is “sickened” by his work. Ting also acknowledges the hurdles and burdens his patients experience long before they get to have their surgeries, a moment many have been waiting nearly all their lives.
“Born to Be” emphasizes not just the need for access to healthcare and for Ting’s services, but also how important it is that the clinic employs members of the trans community, like Zil, the program director, who has strong rapport with its clients. If the film has a message, it is that doctors and staff are needed in this growing field.
The strain of running a clinic is also addressed. Insurance can be delayed or denied, and scheduling electrolysis can be problematic. The documentary also explores how some patients continue to encounter problems even after procedures are completed. A dramatic episode late in the film features the aftermath of a post-op suicide attempt. This setback is heartbreaking, but also illustrates that low self-esteem, depression, and fear are not necessarily alleviated by surgery alone.
Still, “Born to Be” is overwhelmingly an uplifting documentary because of Ting’s compassion and his success with his clients. His work deserves to be celebrated, and this galvanizing documentary showcases him well.
BORN TO BE | Directed by Tania Cypriano | Kino Lorber | Opens Nov. 18 | Film Forum’s Virtual Cinema | filmforum.org/virtual-cinema