The fight for the rights of imprisoned women in the documentary ‘Belly of the Beast’

Kelli Dillon, right, and Cynthia Chandler in the documentary "Belly of the Beast."
Kelli Dillon, right, and Cynthia Chandler in the documentary “Belly of the Beast.” (Idle Wild Films)

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Erika Cohn’s documentary “Belly of the Beast,” which depicts the fight to ban non-consensual sterilizations performed on female prisoners in California, is at once a thrilling legal drama and heartbreaking depiction of devastating human rights violations that you can’t imagine happening in the 21st century. Unfortunately, as news recently broke about alleged forced sterilizations performed in ICE detention centers, the film is also all too timely, and a powerful argument for women’s reproductive autonomy.

What makes “Belly of the Beast” so compelling isn’t just the issue at hand. At the center of her film, Cohn has several incredible subjects one can’t help but fantasize about casting for a narrative adaptation. At the heart of the story is Kelli Dillon, a Los Angeles-based domestic violence counselor and gang interventionist, who was the victim of nonconsensual sterilization while serving time in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Kelli, who killed her abusive husband in self-defense and in defense of her children, knew she would not be present for her sons’ childhood while imprisoned, and she hoped to meet someone and have more kids upon release. During a surgery to have ovarian cysts removed, prison doctors performed a hysterectomy without her consent. Upon experiencing symptoms of surgical menopause, and realizing that other women in prison were having similar procedures, Kelli wrote to the Oakland-based prison abolition organization Justice Now for help.

Enter our other heroine, Cynthia Chandler, a Philly punk rock kid-turned-lawyer, known for wearing wild shoes to prison to bring some levity to the environment when visiting clients. Upon reading Dillon’s medical documents, Cynthia is the one to inform Kelli exactly what happened to her on that operating table, and together, they take their mission to stop the practice and seek justice for the other women all the way to the top of the California legislature.

There’s also journalist Corey Johnson of the Center for Investigative Reporting who cracks the story wide open when he visits Dr. James Heinrich, who performed many of these procedures, and who remarks to Johnson that these sterilizations are “cheaper than welfare,” a pernicious belief unfortunately held by many who have decision-making power in this system.

Though “Belly of the Beast” moves swiftly, the film covers a years-long process, following both Kelli’s personal lawsuit, including a brutal deposition (and in which she won no damages), and the progress of SB1135, prohibiting sterilization as a form of birth control in prisons.

Kelli is hesitant to go through traumatizing testimony again, but she’s committed to the justice that she and so many other women deserve. In a system that continually dehumanizes prisoners, even after they’ve

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‘Belly of the Beast’ Review: Fighting for Incarcerated Women

When Kelli Dillon was 24 years old, a doctor at the California facility where she was incarcerated sterilized her without consent. That experience, and the way it galvanized Dillon to bring attention to this human rights violation, anchors Erika Cohn’s timely and bracing new documentary “Belly of the Beast.”

To tell the story of the unconscionable treatment faced by women (a majority of them Black and Latino) in California’s correctional facilities, Cohn (“The Judge”) impressively weaves Dillon’s harrowing narrative with those of Cynthia Chandler, a founder of the prison abolition organization Justice Now, and Corey G. Johnson, a reporter at the Center for Investigative Reporting. Their accounts make up the film’s first half, which investigates modern-day coercive sterilization in California and the history of eugenics in the United States.

In the film’s second half, Cohn focuses on the multipronged fight for justice, following Chandler and Dillon as they try to get an anti-sterilization bill passed and reparations for those who have already been sterilized.

“Belly of the Beast” does not reach for happy endings and is most absorbing in its thesis, which makes the stakes of this battle against human rights violations loud and clear. Whistleblower testimonies, expert commentary and powerful archival footage are well-paced throughout the film and reveal a darker truth when it comes to advocating for the rights of incarcerated people: Those on the frontline are not only fighting bad actors who abuse their power, they are also battling a public that at best does not care and at worst condones it.

Belly of the Beast
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. Watch in theaters or through virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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