Review: “Belly of the Beast” offers no happy endings

Review: "Belly of the Beast" offers no happy endings

Filmed over seven years, "Belly of the Beast" reveals the corrupt incarceration system and treatment of women.
Published: September 28, 2021

Erika Cohn's documentary is a brutal look at the dark history of forced sterilizations within the California prison system.

Belly of the Beast is a searing exposé of a corrupt incarceration system’s reproductive injustices and modern-day eugenics. The film, presented as part of Syracuse University’s Human Rights Film Festival, found power through focusing the rage and pain felt by the victims and advocates to drive the story.

Director Erika Cohn crafts a visceral call to action in Belly of the Beast due largely to the film’s core: Kelli Dillon. Dillion, a victim of domestic abuse, was sentenced to serve 15 years at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation after shooting her husband in 2008.

While incarcerated, she underwent treatment when she was 24 for cysts on her ovaries. Dillon knew she would miss out on her sons’ childhoods because of her sentence, so she hoped for a second chance at a family. She consented to an emergency hysterectomy if — and only if — the cysts were cancerous.  Though the cells did not contain cancer, the doctor proceeded with the hysterectomy. Dillon was stripped of her right to choose along with an estimated 1,400 California inmates forcibly sterilized between 1997 and 2013, according to the film

Dillon’s testimonies are raw. She is driven to fight against the prison system and bring public awareness to the atrocities she and other inmates experienced, even after losing her case against the CDCR. Cohn weaves in deposition footage of a young Dillon facing a barrage of questions. When asked what she hoped to do with the associate’s degree she was working towards, Dillon said, “Am I allowed to hope?”

Dillon ignited Cohn’s other leading character, Philadelphian punk turned human rights lawyer, Cynthia Chandler. Chandler, founder of Justice Now, worked with a team of advocates both in and out of the prison to unearth its dark secrets.

Through Chandler, Cohn explores the investigation; California’s history of eugenics, the belief that controlled selective breeding can improve the quality of the human species by selecting “desirable” traits to pass on; and the legal battle to end sterilizations as a means of birth control in prisons


Chandler (L) and Dillon (R) in
Chandler (L) and Dillon (R) in "Belly of the Beast."

Chandler could have easily become the white savior of the film, but Cohn deftly ensures the focus remains on Dillon, who ignited the movement;  the human rights issue at hand; and the inmates disproportionately affected by the forced sterilizations, women of color.

Cohn’s cinema work is critical to Belly of the Beast’s emotional success. Montages of victim testimonies score reenactment shots of women in gowns and handcuffs signing forms, waiting anxiously on examination tables or handcuffed to gurneys. Pans of Pepto-Bsimal pink cell doors are a nauseating reminder of the idea that pink jails keep prisoners docile.

Juxtaposing the jail and interview shots are bright green fields, laughter-filled playgrounds and blue skies — essentially life and freedom. These serve as a chilling reminder of what these victims lost in the prison’s operating room.

Cohn masterfully builds to the finale. In a false ending, the audience sees Dillion singing in her car with her son en route to her graduation. With her pregnancy, domestic abuse and incarceration, she never had a chance to walk graduation. The audience watches and exhales — Dillon finally seems to get her happy ending.

Cohn swiftly cuts to deliver a sharp inhale courtesy of the anonymous nurse voicing her understanding and support of the sterilization as a cost-benefit. The audience continues to tumble downhill as Justice Now and Dillon work to pass legislation banning sterilizations in prisons. Cohn offers no neat closure because none exists in the ongoing battle. The team achieves a victory by getting support for the legislation, but it was only the first step in the long, emotional journey ahead.

“Where’s the happy ending?” Dillon said.

Avatar for Katherine Kiessling

is a graduate student in the Goldring Arts Journalism and Communications program and the Social Media Director for The NewsHouse.