From the Human Rights Watch Festival, we look at Belly Of The Beast, a documentary focussed on the CDCs role in forced sterilization in US prisons.
“CDC is the belly of the beast”: this documentary’s title is said aloud in the closing chapter of the film. By definition, it is the heart of a dangerous situation, or it means to penetrate enemy headquarters. For activist attorney Cynthia Chandler, the revelation that a women’s prison in California was intentionally sterilizing the people incarcerated there was her impetus to walk directly towards this belly of the beast.
Erika Cohn (director) entwines Chandler’s story with Kelli Dillon, who received a non-consensual hysterectomy while incarcerated at 24-years-old. By weaving legal issues with humanity, Cohn builds an impactful narrative of how two women worked towards creating justice for future generations.
Western countries are famed for finger-pointing when they hear of eugenics. But Cohn places truth back into this narrative by demonstrating how the world learned from America’s influence on eugenics, particularly during the years before World War 2 and how it ultimately led to influence in Nazi Germany.
Traumatic stories from women who experienced the horror of CDC healthcare, including forced c-sections that led to non-consensual hysterectomies, are relayed, culminating in the exposure of both staff and public opinion that condoned this unauthorised behaviour. Both Dillon and Chandler are fighting a losing battle throughout, where even staff who see the wrong in it won’t fully condemn its use.
Dillon’s journey is perhaps the more compelling, frequently expressing “where’s the happy ending?” as she sifts through photos of the years she missed watching her sons grow up behind plexiglass. Her desire to not be seen as one story but a whole person is desperately vital towards contemporary narratives we see in media where people diminishingly become hashtags and graphics.
Cohn tries to place this power back in the hands of Dillon, giving her space to express the worries she has of campaigning with her story. Dillon beautifully talks and displays how she takes back ownership and power of her body, and the moments we spend seeing her joyful and excited to be thriving are infectious. She belongs in her own movie.
Ultimately, Cohn had an angle that she was pursuing and that was uncovering and exposing the abuse of in-prison medical staff. Chandler’s moments also speak to who she is and how she got to where she is now, but they try and remain focused on the legal journey taken to make this sterilization illegal.
Belly Of The Beast feels like an education, one that deserves to spread far and wide. The topic of women’s healthcare is hugely necessary with all its complexities, and yet this perspective adds a whole other layer that is almost entirely unspoken. Current developments would appear that secrecy over accountability and reparations for the women this has affected is the way forward. Instead, there are new obstacles of retaliation that must be overcome, and it feels as though Cohn’s documentary is only the starting point of an issue that has been buried for too long.
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