The use of elective sterilization as a cost-effective method of contraception inside women’s prisons sounds like something out of a sequel to Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom. But inside the belly of documentarian Erika Cohn’s Beast lurks a monstrosity more appalling than horror fiction. The concept of purifying the human gene pool had been around since the late 1800s. The Nazis were so impressed with California’s capacity to sterilize 20,000 people that in 1937 they paid a visit to consult with our state’s top eugenicists. It wasn’t until 1979 that correctional facilities were ordered to stop performing hysterectomies for purposes of birth control. The problem not only festered, it got worse. Doctors would order pap smears for patients complaining of a broken finger. One physician took victim-blaming to new heights by accusing sex-deprived inmates of deliberately asking to be examined. Legal activist Cynthia Chandler was the girl sporting a mohawk in her high school yearbook photo, and when it comes to fighting for women’s rights, she’s still punk rock. Kelli McDonald was misdiagnosed with cervical cancer while imprisoned and intentionally sterilized. Their combined involvement and determination help to transform what could have been a standard documentary into a compelling individual rights drama. It screens as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The 11-film series will be available online June 11-20. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit https://ff.hrw.org/. (2020) — Scott Marks
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