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The Feedback: Erika Cohn's 'Belly of the Beast'

By Tom White

From Erika Cohn's 'Belly of the Beast.' Courtesy of Idle Wild Films

Belly of the Beast, Erika Cohn's follow-up to her multi-award-winning The Judge, tracks down a previously little-known story about enforced—and illegal—sterilization of female inmates in California's correctional facilities. For nearly 40 years after a 1979 law was passed in California banning enforced sterilization, this practice continued with impunity in prisons.

Justice Now, a 20-year-old nonprofit based in Oakland, has been in the business of working with people in women's prisons and local communities to, as their mission states, "end violence against women, trans, and gender non-binary people, and to work to dismantle the prison industrial complex as a whole." Cohn met attorney Cynthia Chandler, one of the co-founders of Justice Now, who, in turn, introduced her to Kelli Dillon, a former inmate-turned advocate/activist for violence prevention and intervention.

With her protagonists on hand, Cohn set out to follow their journeys in their fight for reproductive justice.

Belly of the Beast made its world premiere June 11 as the opening night film of the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival—Digital, and will be available to watch through June 20. In addition, the recording of the Q&A that followed the June 11th premiere is available here.

Belly of the Beast screened as a work in progress at IDA and Film Independent's DocuClub LA in November 2018. We caught up with Cohn via email about the process of structuring her film, what she learned from the DocuClub screening, and her festival and impact campaign strategies.


DOCUMENTARY: How did you meet your protagonists, Kelli Dillon and Cynthia Chandler? Did you meet Cynthia first, through Justice Now, and did she make the introduction to Kelli?

ERIKA COHN: Cynthia Chandler and I were first introduced in 2010 through a mutual friend. I was inspired by Cynthia's compassionate release work and intrigued by Justice Now, one of the only—if not the only—US organizations with board members in prison. I was haunted by their "let our families have a future" campaign, which exposed the multiple ways prisons destroy the human right to family, one of the most heinous being the illegal sterilizations primarily targeting women of color. This screamed eugenics. I wondered who this was happening to, what the circumstances surrounding these procedures were, why there hadn’t been repercussions and why no one else was talking about this.

The next 10 years would dramatically change my life, as I slowly uncovered answers to these questions through multiple lenses—artist, activist, journalist, friend. Cynthia invited me to volunteer for Justice Now and I later became a volunteer legal advocate, providing direct service needs for over 150 people in California's women's prisons. From there, I began working with people inside on a project that would become Belly of the Beast.

I had heard about Kelli Dillon's powerful activism through Justice Now, though I didn't have an opportunity to meet her until a few years into the process. After Cynthia connected us, we began collaborating on a variety of projects, including Belly of the Beast. The more I learned about her experiences as a survivor, her courage and selfless advocacy for others, I felt the film really needed to center around her story. As we reveal in the film, Kelli's discoveries catalyzed Justice Now to begin investigating the illegal sterilizations in prison, through which we meet other survivors. 

D: You follow two narrative strands here—the main one, Justice Now and Cynthia taking on Kelli’s case, and the secondary one, the Center for Investigative Reporting and Corey Johnson’s pursuit of the story. The latter strand comes in later in the film and is somewhat contingent on the forward motion of the main narrative. Talk about the challenges, both in production and in post-production, of maintaining these two narratives.

EC: Belly of the Beast was already in production when Corey began pursuing the story. I had no idea at the time how instrumental Center for Investigative Reporting's (CIR) work would become both in the film’s narrative and behind the camera. Though Justice Now had worked on this issue for nearly a decade before Corey Johnson began his investigation, CIR's work thrust the sterilization abuse into a national conversation ultimately leading to a series of hearings in the California State Legislature. CIR's reporting also provided Belly of the Beast with a legitimacy and urgency that many funders needed prior to supporting the film. Until that point, many people couldn’t believe that illegal sterilization was still happening, and therefore couldn't get behind a film that exposed the practice in prison, despite having hundreds of testimonials from those who were directly impacted. In the edit, we ultimately chose to introduce Corey chronologically, concurrent with the actual timeline of events. Additionally, his initial discovery process around modern-day eugenics served as a catalyst to dive into the historical backdrop, which couldn't have come earlier in the film.

D: Kelli's deposition takes on a deeper resonance as you weave it into your film, rather than just show it at the beginning. Talk about how you arrived at this editorial choice.

EC: Some of the most profound conversations I had throughout the years I volunteered as a legal advocate for people inside California's women’s prisons centered around time. From the moment that one is incarcerated, time stands still, yet life moves on all around them. Countless people go before the parole board or through the appeals process, only to be told that while there’s evidence that they have "rehabilitated" themselves and demonstrated "remorse," they need to go back in time and repent as the person they were at the time of their sentence. How does one move forward with life, when they’re consistently being asked to relive, rehash and re-examine their past?

Imprisonment separates and destroys families, which disproportionally impacts women. As Kelli describes, "Out of the 15 years I was there, we had about five visits. When I left, my sons were two and four, so I watched my children grow up on the other side of the glass." Furthermore, the challenges that formerly incarcerated people face when seeking employment and securing housing is perpetual punishment. In addition to serving time and having to navigate the long-term ramifications of imprisonment, people who were illegally sterilized while incarcerated are also confronted with the permanence of their inability to have children. The mental, physical and emotional toll of this continual state of violence is unfathomable. The deposition footage in itself viscerally conjures these themes, and is interwoven throughout the film to remind us of such.

We actually uncovered the deposition footage after our IDA DocuClub screening, after nearing picture lock, after initial film festival submissions. I had been speaking with the attorneys who represented Kelli during her trial about accessing her case file for fact-checking purposes. The law firm that took on Kelli’s case had merged with another firm and only one of the attorneys on her case was still there. Once we got in touch with him, it took months to track down the files as they were in an offsite storage facility. We were fortunate that he believed in the film and remained committed to uncovering them. Within the files, we found a DVD of Kelli's deposition, and upon viewing, we completely restructured the film around it. The deposition serves as our introduction to imprisonment, later placing us in the midst of an unfolding trial, and finally as a storytelling device, evoking both past and present, as Kelli pursues her own dreams while confronting the sense of obligation to the cause.    

D: You introduce Cynthia's back-story—as well as her kids—later in the film. Did you ever in your process consider introducing those elements earlier in the film? 

EC: Yes, we moved those scenes around a lot! We discovered through test screenings that both Cynthia's backstory and scene with her daughters resonated best with audiences after the inciting incident had already been introduced, and we had time to get to know Kelli. In addition, we strategically placed moments of levity and humor throughout the film.

D: I couldn’t help but think of Renee Tajima-Peña's No Más Bebés, which also documents an enforced sterilization program in the underlying motive of eugenics—in this case, at LA County-USC Medical Center. Despite the Madrigal v. Quilligan case, the subsequent changes in policies and procedures and the 1979 law banning enforced sterilization, this practice went on seemingly unchallenged and undetected in the prison system over the next 40 years. First, was No Más Bebés a touchstone for you for further exploration in Belly of the Beast? Second, how did this practice go on for so long? Was Justice Now the first organization to take this issue on? And was the Center for Investigative Reporting the first media outlet to investigate this?

EC: I actually met Renee in 2012 at an event about eugenics taking place at the Berkeley Law School, and later saw No Más Bebés at the LA Film Festival premiere. I so appreciated her film and the lens in which she examined reproductive justice.

Belly of the Beast and No Más Bebés are complementary films, centering around the experiences of survivors and their legal teams, both investigating the legacy of eugenics from different time periods and distinct vantage points. Together they illuminate the struggle for reproductive freedom, the insidious nature of forced sterilization among communities of color, and the tangible challenges in seeking legal redress, changing policy and achieving justice.

We witness population control and systemic racism through policing, imprisonment and lack of access to healthcare—and yet given the levels of secrecy and privacy these institutions hide behind, it’s incredibly difficult to uncover abuses of power. As it relates to prisons, Kelli describes, "It’' really hard to funnel out the information, if some form of injustice or mistreatment has happened to me. Someone in prison has to put their freedom on the line, risking their parole date, or potentially added time to their current sentence, by funneling out [through an underground system] information to make sure that people in the 'free world' know what’s going on."

Justice Now's board members inside prison felt it was crucial to investigate the sterilization abuse, even if it resulted in the organization's downfall. Though Cynthia and her team had dozens of testimonials from sterilization survivors and documentation from the Federal Receiver, it was impossible to gain traction with legislators, funders and partner organizations. As Cynthia describes, "No one wanted to touch this issue with a 10-foot pole." Justice Now was the first organization to take this on, and CIR was the first media outlet to investigate these abuses. It took a combined effort from both groups to bring this issue to light.

D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?  

EC: Our team hoped to receive both gut reactions and concrete feedback from the DocuClub screening.

D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening? 

EC: At that point, we had a few too many hearings and wanted to know which ones were resonating with audiences. We were also struggling with how and when to introduce the historical context.

D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected? 

EC: Watching the film with an audience is invaluable because I feel I’m watching it through fresh eyes, through their perspective. I was pleasantly surprised by the audible reactions people had: laughter, tears, gasps, sighs etc. I remember debriefing with our team after and discussing how we might be able to pull back on some of the "explanatory" sections—whether that be historical, medical or prison-related—which was definitely unexpected.

D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?

EC: 1) The film wasn’t yet ready.

2) We needed fewer facts and more character development.

3) It was too long.

4) We needed to make it clear that it wasn’t just one doctor, one prison official, one bad apple perpetrating these abuse; it was the whole system.

D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made? 

EC: Producer Angela Tucker and I went through the film over and over again, trying to simplify, trimming factual information, being more concise. The editors, Tchavdar Georgiev and Jean Kawahara, and an additional editor, Hee-Jae Park, restructured the film many times. And then we found the deposition footage and were able to secure interviews with former nurses, both of which completely rearranged the film.

D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere? 

EC: Test screenings are beyond important to me. Before locking the film, we had another feedback screening, which resulted in the types of discussions and responses I had hoped the film would provoke. As a team, we decided the feedback we had received was consistent, manageable, and easily executable with minor tweaks. After that, I spent a few additional weeks working on the edit solo, and I felt like I personally had left no stone unturned, that I could justify every shot and every scene in the film.

D: Belly of the Beast is the opening night film at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival New York—Digital. There has been some debate in the filmmaking community about premiering online. What were some of the factors that you considered in arriving at your decision? Is the festival geoblocking in the New York metropolitan area? Are they restricting the number of virtual attendees? 

EC: Now more than ever, it's crucial to hone in on who the film's primary audience is and engage them early on. Both the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch organization have incredible reach, and as the opening night film, we were provided a tremendous opportunity to mobilize key partners and our core audience. In addition, online festivals provide an opportunity to reach viewers who would not have otherwise been able to attend. Therefore, we decided not to geo-target just New York. The film is available throughout the US and tickets are limited to how many seats would have been available in-person at the theater. The film is available to watch through June 20, and the recording of the Q&A from opening night can be viewed here.

D: Have you applied and been accepted into other festivals? What does your festival strategy look like? Have you been able to secure virtual distribution?

EC: Like so many other filmmakers, we are still navigating what our festival strategy looks like.

D: Belly of the Beast lends itself to a robust in-person outreach/impact campaign. How have you made the transition to a virtual campaign? 

EC: We are making the transition and currently in the midst of organizing a digital brain trust. Though our outreach/impact goals will be implemented differently than we had initially imagined, I am hopeful that a virtual campaign might provide an opportunity for greater audience participation.

D: Belly of the Beast will be premiering on Independent Lens in November; how has the pandemic impacted your press and publicity campaign?

EC: Between now and November it's hard to predict what will happen, and I don’t know if I can conclusively answer that question right now…Ask me after our Independent Lens broadcast! Some days I feel it’s nearly impossible to break through the news cycle, other days I feel Belly of the Beast is uniquely poised during this moment. I asked Kelli and Cynthia how they felt about the film being released now.

Kelli felt, "In light of Belly of the Beast being released during the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope we can talk about the disproportionate amount of black people and people of color who are not receiving the level of care that allows them to have a better quality of life or healthcare needed to survive this particular outbreak. The sterilizations in California state institutions mirror the same medical negligence, as well as the medical inequality and unfairness that most people experience in prison. Whether it's sterilization abuse or withholding medical care in order to reduce the population of people of color, it's another strategy, an octopus’ multiple tentacles that all lead to the nucleus head of racism, discrimination and population control."

Cynthia felt, "We are not merely experiencing a pandemic, we are living in a eugenic moment of rising fascism: politicians and business owners are flippantly demanding the sacrifice of elders and people with preexisting medical issues for the betterment of capitalism and the State; 'essential' has become the adjective to sugar-coat the expendable working class, which is disproportionately women of color. By giving a history to the dangers of eugenic policy and modeling modern struggle, I hope the film inspires activism and resistance."

Cynthia Chandler (left) and Kelli Dillon, protagonists from Erika Cohn's 'Belly of the Beast.' Courtesy of Idle Wild Films

D: What advice would you offer to other filmmakers who completed their films and are assessing their roll-out strategies?

EC: None of us have the answers. There isn't one right way to do things. I think so many of us are still mourning the loss of film festivals and theatrical/non-theatrical screenings as we knew them before COVID-19, concerned about what the future distribution landscape looks like, and agonizing over whether or not to hold our films until a later date. If and when we can let go of this uncertainty, I believe there is tremendous opportunity to reimagine what a strong roll-out strategy might be, and in the process, shift paradigms in our industry. Though sometimes painful, I am trying to reframe what success looks like for Belly of the Beast, and it's incredibly empowering.


Tom White is editor of Documentary.