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INTERVIEW: Born to Be Documentary Director Tânia Cypriano

Susan Kouguell speaks with filmmaker Tânia Cypriano during the New York Film Festival where her powerful documentary Born to Be had its world premiere.

Susan Kouguell speaks with filmmaker Tânia Cypriano during the New York Film Festival where her powerful documentary Born to Be had its world premiere.

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“I've always been interested in stories related to health and the body in the context of individuals and communities.”

~ Tânia Cypriano - Director

 Tania Cypriano and cinematographer Jeffrey Johnson

Tania Cypriano and cinematographer Jeffrey Johnson

I had the pleasure to speak with Tânia Cypriano during the New York Film Festival where her powerful documentary Born to Be had its world premiere.

Born to Be follows the work of Dr. Jess Ting at the groundbreaking Mount Sinai Center for Transgender Medicine and Surgery in New York City—where, for the first time ever, all transgender and gender non-conforming people have access to quality transition-related health and surgical care. With extraordinary access, this feature-length documentary takes an intimate look at how one doctor’s work impacts the lives of his patients as well as how his journey from renowned plastic surgeon to pioneering gender-affirming surgeon has led to his own transformation.


Tânia Cypriano has been working between the United States and her native Brazil for over twenty-five years. Her films and videos have won international awards including Best Documentary at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, New York AIDS Film Festival, Festival do Cinema Brasileiro de Gramado in Brazil, and Fespaco in Burkina Faso. Her first documentary Viva Eu!, which won five international awards, including Best Documentary at Joseph Papp’s Festival Latino in New York, is about the first man diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Brazil. Her television credits include working on documentaries for PBS, the History Channel, NHK in Japan, GNT in Brazil, and Channel 4 in England. Tânia has also been a grant recipient from the New York State Council on the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Soros Documentary Fund, the Jerome Foundation, Experimental Television, and the National Latino Communication Center. She has served in productions for Bill Moyers, Martin Scorsese, and Nelson Pereira dos Santos. She has also co-organized film series with MoMA, Anthology Film Archives, Exit Art, the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo, and the Grazer Kunstverein in Austria.

 Dr. Ting (center)

Dr. Ting (center)

KOUGUELL: Let’s talk about the creative collaborative process.

CYPRIANO: After a year of getting the hospital’s permission to film and finding funding, we started production with no sound recordist—just using mics on the cameras and for that matter no crew; it was just our cinematographer Jeffrey Johnson, our producer Michelle Koo Hayashi and myself. Michelle had a lot of creative input with me, and it was her first film.

I try to include and be open to everybody’s suggestions and thoughts.

With the filming, I went in with Jeff and myself often carrying all the equipment. We had no sound person in the beginning. It was the three of us or just Jeffrey alone because of the size of the rooms. It was very tough to film in such tight spaces. I was lucky to find Jeff and to work with him. It was hard to find camera people who would feel comfortable filming surgeries and exams; a lot of people are not good with seeing blood.

 Dr Ting with Jordan

Dr Ting with Jordan

KOUGUELL: How much input did Dr. Ting have on the project?

CYPRIANO: Dr. Ting had quite a bit of input. He helped me gain access to both the director of the hospital and inside the hospital spaces. Sometimes Dr. Ting would meet a patient and then suggest them to us. Other times we were just there by chance. This happened with Cashmere; we were there by chance, and we were able to film her on her first consultation and follow her journey.

 Devin waits for Dr. Ting pre-op

Devin waits for Dr. Ting pre-op

KOUGUELL: Did you work from a written outline or script?

CYPRIANO: We filmed without a script or outline. The film was shaped in the editing room. After we started editing, we did do some more filming. For example, with Devon’s story, more happened after we were already editing. We had to bring the material to the editing room and then rethink how we were structuring our acts. It totally shifted where the film was going originally. To the very last day, we had to make sure to be as accurate and open to tell this very story.

KOUGUELL: There was a poignant comfort level that you established with the patients and their families and friends.

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CYPRIANO: I spent almost three years following the people in the film. I built a very tight relationship with them. I’m part of their life, too. That’s a way I also work. Once I start getting involved with personal stories it’s difficult to separate myself as a person. A lot of the material we have is because of these types of relationships.

It was important to me that everyone felt comfortable; it was important for their bodies to be part of the story. All of the patients felt very comfortable being in front of the camera. I tried to make sure that the surgeries (seen in the film) were treated in a certain manner; what we could see and not see. It was a big decision how and what to show.

For transgender people to get this healthcare is historical. Before, patients would have to be wealthy or travel great distances.

KOUGUELL: Were there any questions or subjects either Dr. Ting or the patients did not want to discuss?

CYPRIANO: Once I found the right people to be part of a project, I needed to know that we could talk about everything. They were all very open.

It was essential to me that everyone be comfortable sharing their names, their faces, and their bodies. It was important to me to follow people of different ages, ethnicities, gender, and financial backgrounds. There are those who have family support and those who don’t; there are those who have partners and those who hope their transition will bring them to one.

KOUGUELL: Looking back on this experience, what are your final thoughts?

CYPRIANO: I was overwhelmed by how many people in the film wanted to show their faces on camera and be involved in the project. They knew the importance of this film, and how historical this moment is.

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