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).
The idea for Bitter Honey came to Lemelson while working in Bali on another film, 40 Years of Silence, which focused on the mass killing and rape of thousands of women throughout Indonesia. In that research, Lemelson interviewed women who recalled horrible domestic abuse at home, and he noticed that many of them happened to be in polygamous unions. In this film, Lemelson intends to highlight Indonesia's "kinship between gendered violence and polygamy," though he notes that, as an anthropologist, he wasn't trying to point fingers at other societal systems or "only show the unhappy side"—he strove only to "show what we saw."
We're first introduced to Sadra, who has two wives, and Darma, with five. (At one point, Darma is asked to introduce his many kids. He has no trouble with the first two, but soon he begins to falter, asking the boys, "What's your name again?" When the cameraman asks if he really can't remember his children's names, he laughs it off.) Sadra's wives, who live in separate homes, complain that he gives them zero financial support to help pay their rent or feed their kids.
Darma, a cockfighter, is more reserved than Sadra. One of his wives cries as she recalls how, when she was a teenager, he kidnapped her, refused to let her leave his house, and forced her to sign a marriage certificate. Another of his wives—the youngest—says Darma began courting her when she was still in junior high.
Both of those men also tricked some of their wives into marrying them by initially pretending to be single. The truth was revealed later, of course—one wife was shocked to discover, at the altar, that her husband would be marrying another woman at the very same time. And, interestingly, both men still frequent the local red-light district, though they claim not to actually do anything there.
The third, much older family Lemelson interviews gets the least amount of screen time. The 80-year-old Tuaji's 10 (!) wives seem generally happier and more accepting of their situation; one of them believes she was "destined to be with him." Tuaji's decision to become a polygamist seems firmly steeped in old-school Balinese tradition. He's a royal descendant, and widely feared; as a former member of the Nationalist Party, he reportedly killed hundreds of thousands of Communists in 1965, but his wives (two of whom are sisters) say he doesn't beat them... "if we haven't done anything wrong."
Almost all the women in "Bitter Honey" recall being the target of abuse at their husbands' hands. Darma's wife—the one who was forced to marry him—cries on camera the most. She doesn't want her daughter to follow in her footsteps, but she sees no escape from her unhappy union, saying, "I married once, for life. I will die here."
Sadly, she might be right. When Balinese women want to divorce, things can get sticky, even if there's violence at home. For one, there's the stigma. Generally, Hinduism frowns upon divorce, and according to Lemelson, the divorce rate in Bali stands at less than 10 percent. Women who are divorced or widowed have a low social status, and are "ostracized and isolated," says Lemelson. Then there's the matter of kids, homes, and money. Most of the women in Bitter Honey work for a living because they have to (their husbands can't or don't want to support them all). But traditionally, if a wife wants to dissolve her marriage, "the inheritance only goes through male lineage, so the woman loses all her wealth and property [in a divorce]. Then she loses her soul: the Balinese believe souls are recycled back into the father's family lineage," Lemelson explains. She'll frequently have to say goodbye to her kids, too, as the kids "essentially become property of the husband."
But that doesn't stop some of the women in Bitter Honey from making strides for independence. One of Sadra's wives speaks with a local female attorney named Luh Putu Anggreni to stage an intervention on her husband's abuse at home. When the impressively patient lawyer (who is interviewed throughout the film) explains to Sadra that "being violent is a crime" punishable by jail, he nods and smiles, but it's unclear if it registers.
And Darma's first wife, Kiawati, jumped on a legal loophole, managing to successfully divorce Darma and retain custody of her kids. She works for meager wages to support her family, but her life is her own, and when she says she's happy, it's believable, given the refreshingly huge, beaming smile on her expressive face. We're left yearning for change for these women, and Lemelson says he wants that change more than anyone. Adamant that his film be used for reform, Lemelson is working with local activists to set up Bali's first gender-based violence program, and says he's aware that this sort of violence "is not an exclusive problem to polygamy."
And on a side note, though Lemelson's work doesn't touch on American polygamy, he reached out to the Brown family of Sister Wives to see if they'd like to learn more about Bitter Honey. Though they initially expressed interest in meeting with polygamous families from different cultures, they (not surprisingly) shied away after considering the heavy scope of the film. But there is a positive aspect, albeit small: Balinese youth might be starting to see polygamy as outdated. One of the film's simplest, most satisfying moments is watching Darma's teenage son loudly declare his intent to never follow his father's path. Baby steps?
Bitter Honey opens tonight in Washington, DC, and elsewhere in November. Go here for a schedule.