Belly of the Beast
“This is just the beginning.” Those words, spoken by Kelli Dillon (a survivor of domestic violence and a former inmate at the Central California Women’s Facility [CCWF]) near the end of Belly of the Beast, underscore the urgency with which this latest documentary from Peabody Award-winning director Erika Cohn confronts the topic of forced sterilizations of female prisoners. Like thousands of other women in the United States, Kelli is a victim of coercive hysterectomy, performed illegally (without her consent) by a doctor under contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. For years, her traumatic experiences at the world’s largest women’s prison, which is said to have a “horrible track record” when it comes to reproductive health care, were swept under the rug by the CCWF’s medical staff. However, thanks to the efforts of the Oakland-based nonprofit organization Justice Now and its fiercely committed co-founder Cynthia Chandler, not to mention whistleblowers who are putting their careers on the line by speaking out, Kelli is finally having her day in court. With tremendous sensitivity and subtlety, Cohn’s film reveals how tubal ligations and other unnecessary surgical procedures, carried out on women of color at an alarmingly high rate, recall the history of eugenics. Indeed, racist efforts to genetically modify the social makeup of human populations, which date back to the early twentieth century, have sadly not gone away. Featuring interviews with investigative reporter Corey Johnson, state senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, and internationally recognized gender and race scholar Dorothy Roberts, and taking the viewer into government chambers where legislators appear sympathetic to Cynthia’s calls for reform and reparations, Belly of the Beast expands out, beyond her client’s case, to consider the larger sociopolitical implications of these long-ignored rights violations. However, it is Kelli, the film’s main subject — proudly showing off her “Survivor” shoulder tattoo and later asking “Where is my happy ending?” — who occupies the emotional center of this profoundly moving testament to both individual courage and collective action.
-David Scott Diffrient