Belly of the Beast


Director: Erika Cohn

Words – Rhiannon Topham.

Belly of the Beast explores the grotesque modern-day eugenics happening in California prison systems over the course of seven years. It focuses primarily on the illegal sterilisation of inmate Kelli Dillon, a young mother and domestic abuse survivor who hoped one day to have more children with someone who truly loves her. She is supported by Cynthia Chandler, the first attorney to free someone from prison on compassionate release and the co-founder of Justice Now, a non-profit organisation which provides legal advocacy for the inmates of women’s prisons and has board members who are currently incarcerated.

The stories which come out of the various first-hand accounts featured in the film may sound like something from a dystopian work of fiction, or historical retellings of horrors of pre-enlightened society, but they are not. They come from modern American women, many of whom are women of colour. It’s seems unfathomable that this sort of condemnable behaviour could receive anything but criticism, yet as we know from a history of violence against women generally and Black women particularly, when it comes to the politics of the body anything but the rich white male is ripe for violation.

Director Erika Cohn makes no attempts to ameliorate the lived reality of being incarcerated in the US prison system, which includes the unconscionable opinions of many members of the general public. It is uncomfortable viewing, unflinchingly so. It is hard to watch because you can almost guarantee that its message will not change how swathes of people, not only in America but across the globe, see a woman’s body as something which can be externally controlled without her consent.

The power of Belly of the Beast is in its intimate and empathetic collaboration with currently and formerly incarcerated people who were targeted by the illegal sterilisations. It is so rare to watch a legal drama which actually includes and actively involves the voices of the people who are inside the prison system. The film makes use of whistleblower testimonies, archival footage and talking heads from experts to evenly pace its narrative and although Kelli doesn’t get the happy ending she and Cynthia were hoping for, their work and its documentation by Erika Cohn mean thousands of incarcerated women are now legally protected from the institutionalised abuse of a system and public who show little or no regard for their bodies or their future.

Details of Belly of the Beast screening at the 2021 Human Rights Watch Film Festival can be found here: