“This is for print, right?”
Director Tania Cypriano asks me the question as we both sit down in front of our respective webcams. We’ve come together to discuss her forthcoming documentary, Born to Be. The film premieres in virtual cinemas November 18, commemorating Transgender Awareness Week.
We assure her that yes, the interview will only appear in print, so nobody will see the two of us dressed informally for our talk. Cypriano smiles her warm smile and relaxes into her chair. Behind her, on her desk, our eye couldn’t help but gravitate to an Emmy Award stuffed next to several books.
For Cypriano, Born to Be represents a return to directing after a hiatus lasting more than a decade. Her first film, Odo Ya! Vida com AIDS chronicled life among AIDS patients living in her native Brazil. Her follow-up, Grandma Has a Video Camera documented the struggles of an immigrant family living in the US through home movies.
Born to Be also represents a departure for Cypriano. The film follows the practice of Dr. Jess Ting, a plastic surgeon based in New York City who specializes in treating transgender patients. Cypriano delves into the particulars of several transgender patients–both male and female–undergoing gender confirmation procedures ranging from rhinoplasty to bottom surgery. The film also chronicles Ting’s innovations in developing new techniques for vaginoplasty and phalloplasty…all while playing the bass and raising two kids as a single dad.
We chatted with Cypriano about the film, her career, and how a cisgender woman approaches a transgender subject matter. Born to Be comes to virtual cinemas November 18 in celebration of Transgender Awareness Week.
This is your first film as director in 13 years. Why did it take you so long to make another, and why this subject?
Now I have to count David! You know what it is? I’ve done a lot of commission work. I have not done independent films that go to festivals, but I have done a lot of TV work in Brazil and here. If you want to know the personal side, as a Brazilian living in the US—it’s very interesting. It is a very strange place to be when you do not speak Spanish in a country like the US, and you’re trying to make work that is important to you in a place that is both foreign and your home.
That is interesting.
I have spent most of my years navigating and making films I was not “supposed” to be making. I love to learn. And there is much I learned that’s about me as well. So I fluctuate between worlds. I started as an experimental filmmaker. I was fortunate that my first film was very successful. At one time, it felt incredibly discouraging for me to go after funding.
Oh of course.
So I started making more and more work that was commissioned. For several years, I’ve gone on a path where it was mostly people coming to me to be a producer or director with funding. This was the first film where it was a feature film that I directed with money where I could actually choose who I want to do the cinematography, who I wanted to edit, etc. And I loved the experience.
That’s wonderful. How did you first learn of Dr. Ting and his practice?
I was actually approached by [producer] Michelle Hayashi approached me through a mutual friend. She is a philanthropist and had never made a film before. She met Dr. Jess Ting and learned about the center and had the idea to make a film. Dr. Ting told her the story about a patient of his that had committed suicide while waiting for surgery. She found out about the rate of suicide within the community and felt very strongly about wanting to do something for the community. She approached me, I met her and Dr. Ting, and he was supposed to be someone to help us get access to the hospital.
So that’s how I met him. It took us about a year to get permission to film in the hospital—there are lots of logistics, but also to do our research. Throughout that process, I thought that Dr. Ting needed to be a subject in the film. Michelle wanted to make a film that would help the transgender community, and I thought it we followed Dr. Ting there was a good chance to speak to a larger audience. So it’s a film about the community, and a parallel: a man, father of three kids, divorced, cisgender, Asian, Christian and a musician. I’m a true believer that change must come from within, but changes can also come from outside.
It certainly helps. Was he reluctant to let you film? He comes off as a very private man.
He was very reluctant. It took a while to get him to be in the film. But then, I think he enjoyed being in it. He’s a musician, a performer. He plays the bass, which is a very difficult instrument. So there are these metaphors there. If you talk to him today, he’ll say “I’m a musician” and “I help people become who they are.” When I heard that, I knew he had to be in the story.
He’s extremely good. I’ve never heard of anyone who was offered a Julliard scholarship and had only had two lessons on their instrument. Did he ever give you insight as to why he didn’t pursue a career as a bassist?
He did. There are very few opportunities for a musician that plays the bass to make a living. He came from an immigrant family, with a single mom. His older brother was a doctor, and suggested he take a pre-med course. And of course, Dr. Ting is someone very ambitious. So he goes and becomes the head of his class, and became a doctor. One thing I have to say—and it’s something I’m very proud of in the film—Dr. Ting has gone back to play the bass and now plays with an orchestra in New York.
Tell me a bit about being in the operating room with Dr. Ting. Obviously, that’s a very sensitive, delicate place to be. How nervous are you watching him perform his work? Was it uncomfortable to film?
I have a personal story. I was in a fire accident and spent nine months in the hospital having surgeries. So I’m very comfortable inside a surgery room. I actually miss it a little. I wonder if I should go to med school…
I told Jeffery Johnson, our cinematographer, that we needed to film the surgeries. These are historical surgeries, and I thought we could donate some of the footage to the hospital. And for me it was important to film the relationships—what’s going on in that environment. I knew from the beginning people would not want to see the surgeries. There was no reason to show the graphic parts of the surgeries. But it was important to see what was going on. And a lot of surgeries are not done in a place that is dark; they are commemorative, celebratory. You’re going there to make yourself healthier. Always, when I was around the patients, that was the mood.
That’s wonderful. Part of the reason I think people will want to see this film is that it offers a chance to better understand the medical transition for transgender people. That’s something many transgender people are uncomfortable discussing in a personal context. Understandably so. Did you ever discuss with Dr. Ting showing before and after images of the patient’s genitals?
Every single person we follow in the film knew we were there with cameras. And everyone knew we were filming with full nudity. They signed a release. We had permission from the hospital. But there are to parts to this. In the beginning, when we were looking for funding, there was a talk about showing a sample. And I’m like no nudity, please. I felt it was very important to show nudity only if we needed to. I also feel very strongly that because someone gives you access to their most private moments does not mean you need to use it.
I feel like the friends I made on this film—I felt responsible to protect them.
Oh, of course.
I would never show things that I didn’t think was ok. So we had two versions in editing, one that had zero nudity, and one that had two scenes of nudity. When we showed the film at the New York Film Festival last September, and for the first six months, we showed the other version. I miss it, but I am cisgender. It was very important to me to have the support of the transgender community. We had six to eight screenings with a transgender audience making sure everything we did was respectful. That’s the way I work.
It speaks well of you. There is some very sensitive material here. Did you ever feel like you were invading someone’s privacy? Did it get uncomfortable?
Maybe it’s a cultural thing, but I grew up with people looking at my scars, and they would strike up a conversation. I would have to tell everyone what happened to me. I would never go into those environments if I didn’t feel like I was welcome. Maybe it’s an organic thing, but I do feel comfortable in environments of that type. There’s one thing that I feel is very important to talk about…
The people who are in this film, it’s extremely important to understand we were in a very special time. It was a historic time. This is the first comprehensive center in this country to treat transgender patients from beginning to end. People were there that never had health insurance to pay for these things. Everyone there was happy. They had gone on their journey, and there was an excitement about it. The people in this film felt that they were part of that historical moment, and wanted to speak about it. We were in it together.
That’s wonderful. In the film, Dr. Ting sees so many patients and has a six-month waiting list. He’s under a huge amount of pressure, not just to do his work, but to help as many patients as he can. Watching him, getting to know him, how does he cope with that level of stress?
Music was one of them. And, I think the film was helpful. We never talked about it, but the film was happening at the same time. I should have that conversation with him. He talks about his shyness, but he does enjoy the camera.
Where do you go from here? What’s your next film?
I have a few things, and I’m talking to more people. I love collaborating with people who have a vision. I love learning a process. There is a project I’m working on now as a consultant about politics in Brazil. For me, I go to sleep and wake up with it every morning. It’s very difficult being Brazilian and being in the US right now. You kind of lead a double life. I read the news in Portuguese and in English. I open a newspaper, and I don’t know which one I’m reading; Bolsonaro and Trump are so similar. I started out by saying how difficult it is to be Brazilian and make films here. I think [the US] has been a better place for me as a commissioned director. I have to explain a lot why a Brazilian is allowed to make a film in this country. It is something that even at my age I feel I will always have to explain, in the same way I have to explain why I live in this country.
How does that inspire you as a filmmaker?
I think I always see the world bigger. I want to communicate to people around me and to audiences that the world is bigger than we ever think about. I love talking about things nobody wants me to talk about. So I’m very excited to get the film out there. We need to continue communicating.
Opens in virtual cinemas November 18.