Sat Feb 29, 2020 – 12:00 pm | La Casa Grande
When an unlikely duo discovers women in prison are being illegally sterilized, they wage an impossible battle against the Department of Corrections. Filmed over seven years with intimate accounts from currently and formerly incarcerated women, BELLY OF THE BEAST interweaves this modern fight for reproductive justice while confronting more than a century of eugenics.
Centering the narrative around the experiences of those inside the “belly of the beast,” reframes the lens through which we view crime, punishment and rehabilitation. Amid a time of exploding prison populations, disproportionate incarceration of people of color, privatization and overcrowding, our criminal justice system is in crisis. Women of color are the fastest growing prison population and yet there’s a profound lack of resources, attention and interest surrounding women’s incarceration. Additionally, the immense dehumanization and fear of retaliation often inhibits incarcerated people’s voices from being heard, further marginalizing an already “near-invisible population.” Until now, this film has remained undercover to protect both the privacy of participants inside prison, and preserve the campaigns to end sterilization abuse. It is my hope that by shining a light on the healthcare and human rights abuses inside, Belly of the Beast will become a rallying point to call attention to injustices lurking within our criminal justice system.
Prisons are so far out of sight, out of our consciousness, far from our physical reach – we are rarely granted access to the world behind the walls that isn’t dramatized or sensationalized. I wanted to reimagine how we visualize imprisonment, using imagery that evokes memory and passage of time, contrasting confinement and freedom…viscerally placing the viewer within intimate, vulnerable and uncomfortable spaces. From the shots of anxious feet dangling from the pelvic exam table, to the first person POV gurney shot rolling into surgery, to the camera peering down the shower drain – water droplets splashing in swirling slow motion, our team pursued a cinematic language that conjured the notion of consent…how can informed consent be obtained behind prison walls?
From my years as a legal advocate working with people inside women’s prisons, I recall waiting for meetings within a small brick attorney room devoid of color and life. Yet, when each person would enter, the room would dance with descriptives and energy…time stood still. Though our audience may not have the opportunity to meet all those I had the privilege to work with, I wanted to transport viewers into the worlds which were carefully described and shared with me. Our filmmaking team didn’t have access to some of these spaces, and therefore chose to carefully reconstruct, agonizing over every detail, feeling the weight of responsibility and gravity of accurately depicting each memory, each moment, each restricted space. Our team strove to visually demystify incarceration and cinematically push the boundaries of verité filmmaking, utilizing a combination of first person POV, recreation and observational footage.
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. 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 ten 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. Without their mentorship, support and courage – this film would not exist.
A few years later, Kelli Dillon and I met in Los Angeles and 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.
Belly of the Beast’s journey has captured my heart, my soul, my life. Navigating the nuances in approaching this project through multiple lenses humbled me and I was fortunate to be surrounded by an incredibly collaborative key creative team and brilliant advisors who helped guide our film through various challenges. I am in awe by the sheer volume of people who poured their hearts into this film. I am endlessly grateful to Kelli and Cynthia for allowing us to journey alongside them and to Courtney and the Justice Now team for revealing years of their David and Goliath battle on camera.
Director / Producer Erika Cohn is an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director/producer who Variety recognized as one of 2017’s top documentary filmmakers to watch. Most recently, Erika completed THE JUDGE, a Peabody Award-winning film about the first woman judge appointed to the Middle East’s Shari’a courts, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and was broadcast on PBS’ 2018 Independent Lens series. Erika co-directed/produced, IN FOOTBALL WE TRUST, an Emmy award-winning, feature documentary about young Pacific Islander men pursuing their dreams of playing professional football, which premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and broadcast on PBS’ 2016 Independent Lens series. She has received numerous accolades for her work, including a Director’s Guild of America award for her film, WHEN THE VOICES FADE, a narrative profile of the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006, and has been a featured panelist/speaker at various film festivals and university conferences across the globe. Her work has been supported by IFP, the Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute, Hot Docs, Sheffield, ITVS, Women in Film, BAVC and the CPB Producer’s Academy among others.
Erika grew up attending the Sundance Film Festival as a native Utahn, where she first began her career. Erika has received numerous accolades for her work, including a Director’s Guild of America award for her film, WHEN THE VOICES FADE, a narrative profile of the Lebanese-Israeli war of 2006, and has been a featured panelist/speaker at various film festivals and university conferences across the globe. She studied at Chapman University (California) and Hebrew University (Jerusalem) and has degrees in Film Production, Middle Eastern Studies, and Acting Performance. In 2013, Erika founded Idle Wild Films, Inc., which has released three feature documentaries and produced numerous branded content and commercial spots, including Gatorade’s “Win from Within” series, for which she received a 2016 Webby award nomination. She currently is developing her feature narrative debut. BELLY OF THE BEAST is her third feature-length documentary.