(during all of this week, Screen Comment’s Eric Althoff gives readers his take on the choicest films from the 2020 crop of AFI Docs, the world’s premier documentary film festival which took place online this year due to the coronavirus)
Incredibly, California didn’t rescind its eugenics laws until 1979. If that weren’t shocking enough, then “Belly of the Beast” will surely raise eyebrows as the doc traces the ugly forced sterilization of incarcerated women in the Golden State. The doc’s main subject, Kelli Dillon, was incarcerated for defending herself from an abusive husband in a heightened moment that resulted in his death. While in prison, she developed abdominal pains and was sent to the infirmary, emerging from surgery with the gradual realization that her cycles had stopped completely. She claims she was asked by her doctor that if her life were in danger, would she want her uterus removed? She responded yes, but never signed a document specifically authorizing same.
Director Erika Cohn uses this case as a springboard for looking at the ugly history of forced sterilization in California, first of Native and other communities deemed “undesirable,” but in the 1990s and into the 21st century, practiced on female inmates against their will. Their case for change is taken up on the outside by an attorney who believes the epidemic is so egregious it requires legislation from Sacramento.
Horrifying and fascinating all at once, and a grand effort from Cohn.