American pop culture has recently framed polygamy as the domain of Mormons (think Kody Brown of TLC's creepy Sister Wives) and Chloe Sevigny going plain-Jane prairie-style in HBO's Big Love. But a new documentary, Bitter Honey, set in Bali, examines the Indonesian tradition of men having multiple spouses—a practice that's mostly maligned in Western cultures—from an entirely different angle.
Chronicled mainly from the women's point of view, the film highlights the betrayal, fear, and violence that can be par for the course in the patriarchal ritual, which, though still legal in Bali, is currently on the decline (only about 10 percent of Balinese marriages are polygamous "honey marriages").
In the film, director and UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson follows three polygamous families in Bali—now a trendy tourist locale, thanks in part to Liz Gilbert's Eat Pray Love—for seven years, encouraging them to recount sometimes-painful details of their daily lives, though even that was an arduous process, as Lemelson says in a phone interview. "At first [the subjects] were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear," he says. "Finally, going back year after year, they started opening up." What they reveal, in bits and pieces, are some of polygamy's darkest, most abusive byproducts (at least one of the women was forced to marry against her will).