Belly Of The Beast


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Belly Of The Beast
"Thorough and incisive, this is a documentary which restrains its anger to focus on the evidence."

Discovering that they're unable to have children is a shattering experience for many women. How much worse if one is then told that it's the consequence of somebody else's medically unnecessary decision? Kelli was 24 when she was incarcerated for - as she tells it - stopping her violent husband from hurting her and her children in the only way she could. The kids were two and four then. Seeing them only through glass when they visited, she missed out on most of the joys of watching them grow up. What kept her going was the thought that when she had served her time she would - if she met the right man - still be young enough to have another shot at family life. But what should have been a routine, minor gynaecological operation changed everything. Her uterus was removed without her consent under the pretence of treating a cancer that wasn't there.

Medical mistakes happen, of course, but any belief Kelli might have had that she was simply unlucky began to fade when she met another young prison inmate who had been through a similar experience. She began to investigate and manage to get in touch with a human rights organisation which had the resources to fight her case. At the time, enforced sterilisation had already been illegal in California for 40 years, but at the Central California Women’s Facility, it appeared to be commonplace.

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Made over seven years, Erika Cohn's film follows Kelli's legal case and her transformation from a nervous young woman who expected nothing out of life to a confident campaigner driven by her anger at injustice. Although nothing is as straightforward as initially expected, the case - and the film - succeed in exposing not only routine medical abuses but also the disturbing attitudes behind them, which in turn reflect on the US' approach to incarceration, its unwillingness to treat inmates as socially salvageable or even as fully human.

This might seem like a timely release, coming soon after allegations that similar incidents have been taking place in Irwin County Detention Centre, Georgia, but the sad fact is that women have been sterilised without their consent throughout US history: Native women, African-American women, disabled women. Cohn's film touches on this without going into so much depth that it would risk distracting from her principal subject. Similarly, she gives viewers a flavour of prison life without talking so much about other injustices that the particular cruelty of Kelli's loss loses its sting. We don't see much of the other victims directly - it's a difficult subject to talk about, and some reference how it has complicated their ability to form relationships - but their voices carry as testimony accumulates, and we see what working on these cases has done to the lawyers involved.

Thorough and incisive, this is a documentary which restrains its anger to focus on the evidence, but many viewers will likely find it harder to hold back. For those who haven't seen this side of the US before, it will be particularly unsettling. Prisoners' voices are usually the last to be heard and Cohn has done important work in bringing these to the attention of the world.

Reviewed on: 09 Oct 2020
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Documentary about the involuntary sterilisation of women in the US federal prison system.

Director: Erika Cohn

Year: 2020

Runtime: 82 minutes

Country: US


Human Rights 2020

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