Robert Lemelson’s latest documentary film takes his audience inside the lives of the women, men and children living in polygamous families in Bali
In a rare occurrence, Dharma and his four wives spend the afternoon together Elemental Productions
‘No one decides what I do. I am king…I am free.’
For Ni Nyoman Kamareni Kiawati, a Balinese woman in her late forties, such freedom is hard-won. Like the other women featured in Bitter Honey, the latest documentary film from Robert Lemelson, Kiawati spent much of her life in a polygamous marriage. But Kiawati is an exception: she is able to escape. For Purniasih, Murni, Suci Ati and the other women whose stories are at the heart of the film, polygamy is an inescapable force that shapes their choices, their emotional and physical wellbeing, and their daily routines.
Investigating the intersections of culture, tradition, and suffering is not new territory for Lemelson. In addition to making films, Lemelson is a professor and research anthropologist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). While his previous feature-length documentary, 40 Years of Silence (2009), examines the psychological effects of trauma on survivors of the 1965 mass killings in Indonesia, his other works, such as Movements and Madness: Gusti Ayu (2006), The Bird Dancer (2010) and Lemelson’s scholarly publications, draw attention to mental illness and social stigma in Indonesia. Bitter Honey, which was released on 3 October 2014 in the United States, represents Lemelson’s most recent effort to bring typically hidden aspects of Indonesian culture to light.
In order to offer an honest, in-depth portrayal of polygamous relationships in Bali, the filmmakers spent seven years with the three families featured and conducted interviews not only with the wives and their husbands, but also with children, neighbours and acquaintances of the families.
Degung Santikarma, an anthropologist, and Luh Putu Anggreni, a lawyer who specialises in cases involving women and children, also lent their insights into how Balinese men and women perceive and navigate polygamous marriages. Nevertheless, it is the women’s stories that remain central to the film. In this way, Bitter Honey avoids the trap of portraying women as either victims or heroes, drawing attention instead to the complexity of their lives and relationships.
Such complexity is immediately apparent in the film’s first section, Love and Marriage, which addresses how the women ended up in polygamous marriages and why they stayed. For many, their relationships began with deception and manipulation. Ni Wayan Rasti did not discover that her partner, I Made Darma, was already living with another woman until her wedding day. In fact, she learned that Darma planned to marry them both at the same time. Darma’s fourth wife, Suci Ati, was also unaware of Darma’s marital status at the time they began dating. When she tried to escape, Darma chased after her and brought her back to his house. For Purniasih, it was the belief that her partner, I Wayan Sadra, who suffered from epilepsy and desperately needed her care, that drew her into the relationship. Factors such as threats of violence, actual violence, and pregnancy stopped her from leaving.
However, not all the wives feel trapped. Interviews with Sulasih, Darma’s second wife, challenge viewers’ expectations by hinting at the potential advantages a polygamous relationship might bring. ‘Because he has three wives, I can go wherever I want,’ Sulasih admits. With multiple wives, she adds, the housework is easier to divide. These scenes reveal how the women are able to tolerate, and even enjoy an otherwise challenging relationship.
Relationships out of balance
If deception, manipulation, and even abduction explain how most of the women became polygamous wives, Power, the film’s second section, offers at least a partial explanation for the husbands’ polygamous impulses. The filmmakers make clear, however, that the concept of ‘power’ cannot be understood outside of a Balinese historical and cultural context. Scenes of cockfighting, Hindu ritual preparations and a Balinese shadow-puppet performance remind viewers that the stories presented here are uniquely Balinese. According to anthropologist Degung Santikarma, the Balinese have long equated the possession of multiple wives with the possession of supernatural power. This idea is best illustrated through Tuaji, an elderly man with close ties to Balinese royalty. He believes that his willingness to help others in a past life was what earned him the ten wives he has acquired in the present. Impressed by his father’s ability to attract so many women, Tuaji’s first son also attributes his father’s marital status to inherited spiritual power rather than personal choice.
This discussion of supernatural power provides an interesting contrast to the third section, Violence, which depicts the husbands—particularly Darma and Sadra—less as unwitting participants in a pre-determined fate, and more as intentionally domineering and abusive partners. As the wives and some of their children describe the threats, beatings, and emotional abuse they have endured and/or witnessed, Bitter Honey enters into a deeper discussion of polygamy and domestic violence in Bali.
In some respects, the hardships these women face resemble those found in any relationship with domestic violence. Often, the women are too ashamed to ask their neighbours for help. They also find that authority figures, such as a village elder or the police, are reluctant to interfere in what they consider a family’s private affairs. These women also face cultural constraints. As Hindus, they fear that their souls, which become the property of their husbands in marriage, will be in limbo after divorce.
As Balinese women, they are offered few legal protections and risk losing their property and custody of their children should they pursue a divorce. The paucity of the women’s options is perhaps most apparent during a staged intervention between Purniasih, Sadra, Anggreni, Santikarma, and Sadra’s boss, Agung Alit, whom Purniasih believes is the only person her husband will truly listen to. Although this intervention exposes the filmmakers’ desires to do more than simply document cases of abuse, it appears to accomplish little else. In the end, Anggreni suggests it is up to the women themselves to improve their situation by getting along with one another.
By tracing Purniasih’s struggle to end domestic abuse, Murni’s economic hardships and Suci Ati’s efforts to bury her feelings of jealousy and heartache, Bitter Honey captures the full range of the wives’ suffering. And yet, it also suggests that women are not the only ones who suffer. Many of the children interviewed in the film admit to having been teased or otherwise discriminated against as a result of their parents’ marital status. None of them express a desire to share their parents’ fate. Commentary from neighbours as well as snippets of dialogue lifted from the ongoing Balinese shadow-puppet performance also hint at the ways in which polygamy creates an unnecessary burden for the husbands, who are also expected to provide economic, emotional and physical wellbeing for each of their wives.
The real strength of Bitter Honey is its deep focus on the three families and its commitment to providing an honest account of the women’s daily lives. For much of the film, the camera rarely strays far from the women’s domestic environment or immediate surroundings, creating an intimate, almost claustrophobic, viewing experience that effectively mirrors the women’s everyday realities.
At times, this narrow scope feels too limited. Issues such as the rise of sexually transmitted diseases in Bali and the effects of alternative marital arrangements are given cursory attention. For example, Kiawati’s nyentana marriage system, which allows Balinese women to divorce their husbands without severe legal or economic penalties, are was not adequately explored. This leaves viewers with more questions than answers. But perhaps this may be the point. For Lemelson, Bitter Honey is a starting point, an attempt to raise awareness and generate greater interest in this largely invisible aspect of Balinese culture.
Bitter Honey ends on a relatively optimistic note, with scenes of the women smiling, enjoying their children’s company, or in Kiawati’s case, living freely, like a ‘king’. However, it is clear that much more remains to be said on the subject of polygamous relationships in Bali. With compelling subjects and riveting narratives, Bitter Honey does an excellent job initiating this conversation.
Bitter Honey, 2014. Director, Robert Lemelson; Camera (colour, HD), Wing Ko; editor, Chisako Yokoyama; music, Malcolm Cross; sound, Handi Ilfat, Syarif Hidayat, G. Wijaya; re-recording mixer, Michael Perricone. (http://www.bitterhoneyfilm.com/)
Kimberly Clair (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a lecturer in the Department of Gender Studies, UCLA.