Belly of the Beast
2020, NR, 82 min. Directed by Erika Cohn.
REVIEWED By Sarah Marloff, Fri., Oct. 30, 2020
Erika Cohn’s Belly of the Beast is not an easy documentary. Shot over the course of seven years, the film dives into the story of Kelli Dillon – a Black woman who was sterilized against her will in a California prison – and segues into issues of domestic violence, prison corruption, and eugenics. In light of recent reports regarding forced hysterectomies of immigrants at Irwin County Detention Center in Georgia, the questions and concerns raised by Belly of the Beast couldn’t be more timely.
At 19, Kelli Dillon was sentenced to 15 years in Central California Women’s Facility for shooting and killing her husband – the man who verbally and physically abused her. While in prison, she was told she had an abnormal pap smear and needed a biopsy to check for cancer. Dillon told the prison doctor she wanted to have more kids, but agreed to a hysterectomy if cancer was detected. When she awoke from surgery, the doctor told her she was fine and would be able to have children. Over the course of the next nine months, she experienced panic attacks, weight loss, and night sweats. She did not get her period. As her lawyer Cynthia Chandler tells the camera, these are “classic symptoms of surgical menopause.”
Dillon’s medical records confirmed she never had cancer, but was given a hysterectomy. “I had been intentionally sterilized and I had been lied to,” she says looking directly into the camera.
Though Dillon was not the first woman to be forcibly sterilized in California’s prison system, her case sets off a years-long legal and legislative battle led by activist-attorney Chandler and her organization Justice Now.
Visually, the first half of the film provides eye-catching contrasts – expansive green fields and semi-trucks, bright days and dark early mornings, inside versus outside. One image of the prison lingers: The walls and doors – presumably to dozens of cells – are bubblegum pink; the railing a saccharine-y color of cotton candy blue. The result is perhaps the most horrific use of “pink think” to date, hinting at how the women inside the prison are treated. Like “caged animals” says Dillon, with no privacy from male officers’ gaze.
Belly of the Beast becomes more procedural in its second half, focusing on Chandler, Oakland-based advocacy group Justice Now, and (with the help of Center for Investigative Reporting’s Corey Johnson) California’s shameful and expansive history of eugenics. To support the storytelling, Cohn uses footage from old newscasts, newspaper clippings, and audio from interviews conducted by Justice Now with incarcerated women who, like Dillon, were given hysterectomies against their wishes (most are women of color, while white women were largely spared the prison’s “cure all” for its inmates). That’s a lot of ground to cover in 82 minutes and sometimes the storytelling feels jumbled. But Cohn attempts to offer viewers hope, largely through Dillon’s story following her release: But the film, like the subject matter, remains bleak. For every win, there are losses. That’s not to say it’s not worth watching. It is. But it only prepares us for the fight still to come.
Belly of the Beast is available as a Virtual Cinema release.