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“Why should I be the only one to change?” It’s a seemingly fair question, one that countless marriage mediators have surely heard as couples unleash their frustrations to an impartial third party. In Bitter Honey, however, the third party is a women’s rights lawyer in Bali. And in this case, it’s the husband posing the query in response to his understandably timid wife’s request that he stop beating her.
She’d probably prefer that he drop his second wife, too. Bitter Honey is not a documentary about abused women in Bali, exactly. It’s about the bigger umbrella of sanctioned polygamy on this Indonesian island—domestic violence (which, the lawyer says, is now prohibited under a “new” law) and the general mistreatment of wives and their children are shrugged-at by-products.
Robert Lemelson’s documentary tracks three families for seven years, yet it’s a mere 81 minutes—there are only so many angles from which to explore these women’s plights. The film, with hypersaturated color that makes even impoverished homes look beautiful, is framed by a shadow-puppet play that tackles polygamy for an audience of all ages.
Taking many wives is an ancient practice in Bali that’s believed to make men powerful. The three patriarchs profiled here—Darma, Sadra, and Tuaji—may not have been bestowed with a traditional kind of power (with the exception of Tuaji, who is considered royalty and once ruled with an iron fist), but Sadra, with two wives, and Darma, with five, certainly have clout. Some of the women prefer their polygamous lifestyle, while others are heartbroken whenever their husbands spend time with another wife. They all work jobs, take care of their children, and keep up the house while the men date, spend their evenings in brothels, sleep with whichever wife they wish, and—though some may have jobs, too—punish their wives when funds are scarce.
When the husbands are asked why they marry many, the answer is typically “heredity.” Yet Darma, the man shown in mediation, admits that he still can’t forgive his father for beating his mother (and admits that “it would be hard to stop” abusing his wife, as if he were trying to kick caffeine). Sadra, who’s also violent, laughingly says that he’s “afraid of karma”—as in, if he knocks someone up, he’ll marry them. “I’d rather not hurt women,” he says. Aww.
Bitter Honey is a difficult if eye-opening watch, though eventually all the horror stories and tears blend together. (Try keeping track of which wife is married to which husband. Clear editing is not the film’s strong suit.) Lemelson tacks on a happy ending, quickly mentioning the custom of “nyentana marriage,” when a family without a male heir invites some random dude to marry a daughter. If she decides to divorce—as one woman here has done—she doesn’t automatically lose her children or reputation.
Offering merely one example of an independent divorcée resulting from what sounds like a common practice isn’t exactly balanced storytelling. But Lemelson, a white American who is also a cultural anthropologist and philanthropist, appears to regard his project along the proverbial “one person can make a difference” lines. Many of the subjects, even while recounting heartbreaking situations, laugh during their interviews, perhaps unaware that his intent is to campaign for change by telling their stories to the world—or, at least, filmgoers in limited markets.
Bitter Honey opens at West End Cinema on Nov. 7