Interview: Erika Cohn on Confronting the Unimaginable in “Belly of the Beast”

At one point in her investigation of the California prison system “Belly of the Beast,” Erika Cohn is compelled to retrace the history of eugenics in the state, bringing up what surely will be a surprising fact to some that German scientists actually traveled to Caltech in Pasadena in the 1920s to study the practice of forced sterilizations of minorities before carrying the idea back to leaders in the Nazi Party. As unthinkable as that was even then, the mere thought of taking the ability to reproduce away without consent is so abhorrent that it gave something of a shield to Dr. James Heinrich, a gynecologist who revived the procedure at Valley State Prison in the late 1990s at a time when no one would believe any inmates that such a thing could ever occur.

However, what Cohn delivers in “Belly of the Beast” is undeniable, honing in on the story of Kelli Dillon, who realized something was amiss while she was incarcerated and lost over a hundred pounds and stopped having her period following a visit to the prison doctor. Told at the time that she was being checked for cancer after experiencing abdominal pain, Dillon was given a hysterectomy under false pretenses and through the diligence of the human rights organization Justice Now, especially its co-founder Cynthia Chandler, discovered she was hardly alone, making the difficult decision to pursue a costly and likely retraumatizing lawsuit against the state to bring the attention to what was going on behind bars.

While Cohn tells of a story of biological malfeasance, what “Belly of the Beast” shows is how Dillon — as well as those who come to her defense — is robbed of so much more in terms of time, illustrating how she is denied the ability to ever enjoy seeing an offspring of hers grow up when the sons she left at two and four to serve her time are 16 and 18 when she is released, and Chandler’s devotion to seeing the case through involves being around her daughters less during their formative years. Still, as in her last film “The Judge,” following the Honorable Kholoud Al-Faqih who became the first female Shari’a judge in the Middle East as she brought a fresh perspective to domestic issues in the courts, “Belly of the Beast” becomes a galvanizing celebration of women who have come to advocate for themselves and others when no one else will and a demonstration of what a sturdy, fallible system remains in place to keep their voices from being heard.

After premiering earlier this summer at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the film is being made available to the masses this week in virtual cinemas and Cohn spoke about the unfortunate timeliness of its release as news that ICE has been conducting forced sterilizations in their detention centers has come to light and her decade-long quest to tell this story.

How did this come about?

I was introduced to Cynthia Chandler, the attorney who’s in the film in 2010 and was really inspired by her work at Justice Now, which was [at the time] one of the only organizations in the country, if not the only, that had board members who were currently in prison informing policy and strategy from the inside out instead of [from the] outside in. They had this campaign called “Let Our Families Have a Future,” which exposed the multiple ways that prison destroy the basic human right to family, one of the most heinous being the illegal sterilization primarily targeting women of color. To me, that really screamed eugenics. As a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, the phrase “Never Again” was always profoundly in the back of my mind and when I learned about what was going on through imprisonment that this different kind of genocide was happening through forced sterilizations behind bars, I knew that I wanted to get involved.

Initially, I was a volunteer doing campaign videos and later became a volunteer legal advocate, providing direct service needs for over 150 people inside California’s women’s prisons. I began collaborating with people inside for a project that became “Belly of the Beast” and in the early days of this 10-year journey, it was really a film that was documenting a movement. Being someone working on both sides of this as a filmmaker and as a legal advocate, [seeing] how difficult it is to uncover abuses of power and state-sponsored violence because of the levels of secrecy and privacy that these institutions hide behind, it was taking a little bit of a different approach. A couple years later, I met Kelli Dillon and we just immediately hit it off. I had heard of her powerful activism through Justice Now and Kelli is an incredible community organizer, and at the time, she was doing a lot of domestic violence prevention and gang intervention work in Los Angeles and was at a place in her life where the sterilization abuse was something that she really wanted to put to bed and move on, so she became involved in the project, kind of from an advisory role behind the camera.

Then when the Center for Investigative Reporting released [their findings] in 2013, that really changed everything. It led to a series of legislative hearings in California and that was the moment that needed to be capitalized on [when] this was an issue that Justice Now and Cynthia and Kelli had been working on for over a decade and hadn’t gotten either the interest or traction. So that was a moment when Kelli decided that she was considering getting involved again and to really not only be an advocate for herself, but also for other people who deserved justice and to prevent this from happening to other people inside prison. That was the moment that she really became a centerpiece of this story on camera and as you see in the film, her courage and selfless advocacy for others in prison was the catalyst for Justice Now to begin investigating the illegal sterilizations in prison. If Kelli hadn’t been such a tremendous advocate for herself and for others, none of this ultimately would’ve happened.

That’s intriguing to hear that Kelli wasn’t a central subject from the start because you hear a chorus of women in some scenes talk about their experience with hysterectomies anonymously, juxtaposed with scenes in prison, which seemed like a really smart way to shield them while making the film cinematic. Was this a tricky thing to depict in general?

Yeah, that sequence that you’re talking about is really important to me and I think the chorus of voices that you mention and you hear throughout the film was really important to include — people this happened to and people who are currently in prison. Kelli, being the catalyst, started this entire process, both from the legal standpoint and from the activism inside prison, and I talked to a lot of people who experienced sterilization abuse both firsthand or secondhand in my legal advocacy work, but really felt the film would be stronger as a character-driven portrait of Kelli and Cynthia. But since you mentioned that sequence, which had to visually represent some of the other accounts when we actually can’t see the people who we’re hearing from, that is probably one of my deepest regrets is that the audience can’t see and experience a sit-down interview firsthand with people inside who this happened to.

From my years as a legal advocate working with people inside prisons, I recall waiting for these meetings in a small brick attorney room devoid of color and life, yet when each person would enter the room, all of a sudden, it would be filled with so much life and energy. In those moments, for me, time really stood still, so although our audience doesn’t have the opportunity to experience and meet with all of those people that I had the privilege to work with, I really wanted to transport viewers into the world that is really so carefully described and shared with me. Our team didn’t have access to some of those spaces, so we chose to carefully reconstruct [them], advised by people inside prison, agonizing over every little detail insuring that we were accurately depicting each memory, each moment, each restricted space. From the shots of the anxious feet dangling from the pelvic exam table to the first POV gurney shot, rolling into surgery handcuffed to the gurney, to the camera peering down the shower drain with the water droplets swirling in slow motion, I really wanted to just pursue a cinematic language that conjured up the notion of consent and really begs the question of whether consent can be obtained behind prison walls within these coercive environments.

At one point Melody Nickels, a former nurse at the prison, talks about her fears of appearing in front of the camera. Was access to both the prisons and the people that worked at them really difficult to obtain?

Yeah, it was very difficult to find people who are willing to speak on camera who worked for the prison. I spoke to over a dozen health care providers who had previously worked in one of California’s women’s prisons and people were concerned about losing their pensions and, even though they weren’t working for the prison anymore, about what kind of retaliation they might face. That’s not unique to the people that work there. It’s also people inside. Many conversations were had about whether or not if someone wanted to be involved in telling their story, whether or not we could prevent retaliation. We can’t make that guarantee. There’s a tremendous risk of speaking out, both from the perspective of being someone that works in a prison to someone who’s incarcerated in a prison.

Was there anything that happened during filming that radically changed the course of the film? I know you mentioned the Center for Investigative Reporting before.

There were many of those moments. [laughs] One was the moment that the Center for Investigative Reporting really took this on when Kelly became a central part of the filmmaking, but also we were essentially picture-locked when we found Kelli’s deposition footage from her sterilization trial, [which] really serves as our introduction to imprisonment then places us in the midst of her unfolding trial, and finally as a storytelling device evoking both past and present as Kelli pursues her own dreams while confronting a sense of really obligation to the cause. I was in the process of fact-checking details of Kelli’s case right before we picture-locked and found this random description of a DVD in some of the online files that we were able to get access to from the law firm that took this on and it said, “DVD Deposition.” We’re like, “What is this?” Of course having no idea what it potentially could be. Kelli didn’t necessarily remember because it was so long ago and a very traumatic experience where they tried to discredit her accounts and even brought up the initial reasons for her imprisonment as a way to throw her off. But when we found that, we knew we had to completely restructure the film around it.

When the crimes are so unthinkable, is a lot of the evidence is hiding in plain sight or was it a bit of a treasure hunt?

It’s so difficult to uncover these abuses of power and really state-sponsored violence because of the secrecy and privacy that institutions hide behind. That includes health care and criminal justice institutions, so one of the story points in the film is how long in the film it takes for Kelli to get her medical records. It’s important to note that when someone is incarcerated, they have to go through tremendous barriers, including paying for copies of their medical records, and Kelli had tried for years to get access to her medical records and she couldn’t. It wasn’t until Cynthia Chandler requested them that they were able to sit down together and piece together that she had actually been sterilized. As a volunteer legal advocate, I can also attest to this difficulty. There’s one particular case where I requested almost over a two-year time period before I finally got accurate records because I was just sent blank pages every time I requested them.

There’s just one shocking thing after another in this film. This is being released in a way you couldn’t have predicted, but have you been encouraged by the engagement to it so far?

I think this is actually perfect timing for the film and we are witnessing systemic racism and population control through policing, through imprisonment, the immigration detention system and lack of access to health care during the pandemic. I am very inspired by the level of engagement and interest that so many people are moved to take in this moment, fighting white supremacy, systemic racism, health care injustices and other modern day eugenics and this film really connects the legacy of forced sterilization in the United States with what’s going on today, whether that be through the sterilization of people in the ICE detention facility in Georgia or through California’s women’s prisons. In this moment, there’s a lot that we can do and in addition to watching the film, [you can] sign the petition for reparations for California forced sterilization survivors on our website. I believe this will not only continue to make amends for the historical sterilizations that happened, following in the footsteps of North Carolina and Virginia, [which] were the first two states that passed reparations for sterilization survivors, but also to ensure accountability for modern-day instances of forced sterilization. I really do believe if we hold our institutions and our state actors who have committed these harms accountable that we can prevent future abuses from happening.

“Belly of the Beast” will open in virtual cinemas on October 16th. A full list is here.