One would think that the bogus science and cruel practices of eugenics, a scandal that has marred US history up until the 1970s, is a thing of the past. It is not, and Erika Cohn’s “Belly of the Beast” tells the story of a present-day victim.
Kelli Dillon, serving a 15-year term in Central California Women’s Facility for killing her abusive husband in self-defense, went into the prison infirmary to have a cyst removed. After suffering extreme weight loss and other symptoms, she discovered that she had been given a hysterectomy without her knowledge or consent. No one heeded her complaints,
Her case might have gone unreported had not Cynthia Chandler, a human rights lawyer, learned of it by chance. In her investigation Chandler discovered that hundreds of such involuntary sterilizations on incarcerated women of color had been performed over the years. Representing Dillon, she went to court seeking reparations for her. Later the two testified before the California legislature to pass a law forbidding such violations from happening again.
Cohn covers seven years in their struggle; and both women emerge as complex and redoubtable heroes. Chandler, first seen in pajamas in her cluttered home, is eccentric (“My mom is weird,” says one of her daughters affectionately) but fierce and relentless. Dillon, who counseled fellow inmates and has earned degrees in social work, has been an activist since her release. But she still must work to reconnect with her two sons, who were barely old enough to remember her when she was incarcerated. The film exposes the injustice suffered by non-white women in the criminal justice system and shows how persistent women can change that.
“Belly of the Beast” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Virtual Screening Room beginning Oct. 16.
Usually when Jason De León, director of the Undocumented Migration Project, and his team of researchers find refugees who died trying to cross the desert from Mexico to the United States the remains have been reduced to scattered bones by scavengers. But on one occasion they found a dead woman intact enough to be identified and whose personal details, such as a barrette in her hair, bore witness to her tragic humanity. They built a crude memorial at the spot where she was found.
This is one of the more poignant moments in Raúl O. Paz-Pastrana’s “Border South.” He couples the story of De Leon’s quixotic efforts to document and memorialize the thousands of those who disappear en route to the dubious refuge across the border with the experiences of Gustavo Lopez Quiroz, a Nicaraguan migrant who had been shot by a guard while riding a train north. Though nearly killed, the wound proved his good fortune, as a local politician took him on as a humanitarian cause célèbre and petitioned to have him granted a visa. Though permitted to live and work in Mexico, Quiroz still longs to reach the land of promise farther north, and he looks hopelessly at the American flag flying across the river.
Understated and devastating, Paz-Pastrana’s five-years-in-the-making documentary transforms statistics, stereotypes, and relics into harrowing personal stories.
“Border South” can be streamed on the worldchannel.org.
The white stuff
Except for the golden oldies with inappropriate lyrics used without the artists' permission by the Trump campaign, pop music hasn’t played much of a role in the 2020 presidential election, or any other political activism to speak of.
Not so in the ’60s and ’70s, when rock stars wrote the soundtrack for the culture of dissent. Rubika Shah’s “White Riot” focuses on punk rock in late-’70s Britain, a time when the economy was bad, young people felt hopeless, immigrants were demonized, and an extreme right wing party, the National Front, emerged to foment discontent, racial hatred, xenophobia, and white nationalism in an attempt to rise to power. Sounds familiar. Shockingly, such rock deities as Eric Clapton (!) and David Bowie (!) had expressed sympathy for the movement, Clapton going as far as uttering drunken racial epithets from the stage.
This seeming betrayal by some of the biggest names in pop music aroused photographer and activist Red Saunders to write a letter denouncing such quasi-fascist leanings and calling for rock to actively oppose racism. Music publications including New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Sounds published the manifesto; and the response convinced Saunders that many shared his views. Encouraged, he joined other artists and activists to create the organization Rock Against Racism and publish Temporary Hoarding, a 'zine covering progressive issues and stories about political injustice.
The National Front responded to the upstarts with violence. Rock against Racism countered with agit prop, demonstrations, and wildly popular concerts featuring such musicians as the Clash (the film’s title comes from one of their songs), Steel Pulse, and Tom Robinson. The RAR approach proved more effective.
Shah employs conventional devices such as interviews and archival material, which she has enhanced with catchy graphics and animation — all zestily edited together, matching the energy and style of the movement. In addition to being an entertaining look at an important chapter in music and political history, her film provides hands-on examples of how to start a movement, from designing posters and publications to putting on huge outdoor shows.
“White Riot” can be streamed via the Brattle Theatre Virtual Screening Room, beginning Oct. 16.
The lyrics of such Harry Chapin hit songs as “Taxi” (1972) and “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1974) don’t have much of a political edge, but few pop stars exerted such energy and commitment in their activism. Chapin’s cause was world hunger and he dedicated much of his life to fighting it. He died in 1981 at 38, in an automobile accident while en route to a charity concert, one of the 100 or so such events he put on every year.
Rick Korn’s “Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something” focuses on Chapin’s charity work as much as on his music. It shows how the singer’s relentless campaigning, though it accomplished much, disrupted his family life and career. Billy Joel, who amusingly comments about how everyone attributes his hit “Piano Man” (1973) to Chapin, says his friend was “like a saint to the point of being a martyr.” Joel, like others interviewed -- including Bruce Springsteen, Pat Benatar, the late Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and members of Chapin’s family -- remain in awe of Chapin as both a social activist and a master of storytelling in song.
Go to https://bit.ly/2Fzs5gA.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.