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“Three Balinese men continue their forefathers’ way of marriage in Bitter Honey, Robert Lemelson’s look at the way the still legal but unconventional practice of polygamy affects society there. Intelligently assembled by Lemelson, a UCLA anthropologist, it addresses a Westerner’s concerns without condescending to its subjects; though a three-family focus is hardly enough to make an authoritative-feeling portrait, the picture will satisfy the curious in niche and educational bookings.”

-John DeFore , “‘Bitter Honey’: Film Review”

“UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson’s portrait of polygamous families is more “60 Minutes” than “Sister Wives.” An exposé and call for social reform in Bali, the film reveals no all-for-one camaraderie, and few creature comforts, for women in so-called honey marriages, which account for 10% of the Indonesian province’s officially recorded households…

For Westerners, Lemelson offers an eye-opening look behind Bali’s profile as a tourist Shangri-la. The documentary’s ultimate value, though, may be in local education, not unlike the polygamy-critique shadow play that punctuates the film.”

-Sheri Linden, “‘Bitter Honey’ doesn’t sugarcoat polygamy”

There is nothing remotely salacious about “Bitter Honey,” an agonizing documentary examination of polygamy in Bali, Indonesia, from the U.C.L.A. anthropologist Robert Lemelson. There is only vivid evidence of a society that, despite limp efforts at discouraging domestic abuse, remains mired in ancient patriarchy, sanctioning polygamy and, implicitly, often attendant violence. (A “honey,” we learn, is an old regional expression for a second wife.)

-Andy Webster “The Pain of Polygamy: ‘Bitter Honey’ Looks at Multiple Spouses in Bali.”

“Fascinating and undoubtedly important, this is a doc you’ll want to keep an eye out for.”

-Kevin Jagernauth, “Exclusive: Trailer For Polygamy And Women’s Rights Documentary ‘Bitter Honey'”

“In the marital hierarchy of Indonesia, where polygamy is still legal and semi-regularly practiced, a man’s second wife is known as his honey. Robert Lemelson’s cleverly titled documentary, which follows three polygamous families in Bali over the course of seven years, doesn’t belabor the latent subservience of these arrangements, nor does it need to — the women speaking about their marriages in a candid, conversational way say plenty. One man, Darma, can’t remember all his kids’ names off the top of his head; the seventh and 10th wives of Tuaji, who cops to having been involved in his country’s communist purge of the 1960s, are sisters. (Tuaji’s admission makes Bitter Honey something of a cousin to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence.) “

-Michael Nordine, “Bitter Honey'”

“Bitter Honey is not a witch-hunt. It is an even-handed scrutiny. Clear by its example, it is only through investigating the tributaries of the larger issue of systemic inequality, a potential for change can take root.”

-Jamie Maleszka, “Bitter Honey: A Documentary on Polygamy, Love and Violence'”

Watch Good Day New York broadcast interview with Director Robert Lemelson on Bitter Honey.

-Good Day New York “Interview with Director Robert Lemelson on Bitter Honey”

“Lemelson makes these revelations more powerful by withholding judgment. Like a good scientist, he seeks understanding, and structures the film in chapters that explore such basic topics as “Power,” “Violence,” and “Divorce.” He maintains distance and objectivity by having Indonesian scientists analyze the phenomenon, and then has these experts rather than himself interview the subjects.

This does not diminish outrage at the physical violence, deception, and grotesquely unfair laws regarding property and human rights that are revealed, but does allow room to ponder how such evils are not just restricted to a tiny island, but spring from the universal blight of misogyny.”

-Peter Keough, “‘Bitter Honey’ leaves an unsettling taste”

Larry Mantle and KPCC film critics Wade Major, Lael Loewenstein, Charles Solomon and Tim Cogshell review this week’s releases, including “Bitter Honey,” “Gone Girl,” “Men, Women and Children,” “Annabelle” and more. TGI-Filmweek!

“Unbelievable”, “Heartbreaking” – Lael Lowenstein
“Gut wrenching” – Wade Majors

-Filmweek, KPCC “Filmweek: Gone Girl, Men, Women and Children, Annabelle and more”

“The Balinese co-wives have no rights and no voice. They are psychologically manipulated, humiliated and physically abused by their husbands. Why do they stay? Most feel trapped financially with no means to care for their children. In addition to cultural stigma and fear of leaving, years of abuse have eroded their self-esteem…

The film’s director, Robert Lemelson, has an M.A. and doctoral degree and works at UCLA as an anthropologist. He has spent 20 years making documentary films in Indonesia with a focus on culture and mental illness and the relationship between culture and disorders like gender violence, PTSD and schizophrenia. Thank goodness for people like him — agents of change that shine the light on social problems.”

-Dorri Olds, “‘Bitter Honey’ Shows Ugly Side of Bali, Where Polygamy and Domestic Abuse Reign”

“The co-wives are not only psychologically manipulated, they are treated with no respect, their husbands are not faithful outside of the marriages and the co-wives are subjected to cruelty and domestic violence. Why do they stay? Mostly because they are trapped financially. They’d have no way to care for their children if they left. They are also terrified. After years of abuse, their self-esteem has been beaten along with their bodies.

In addition, there is societal pressure. The message to women is that they don’t matter and have no rights and that’s just the way it is. Thankfully, people like Lemelson have taken interest and actions to help the women. It is only recently that Balinese women are beginning to see that they, too, need to take action together.”

-Ronit Pinto, “BALI: Tropical Paradise or Misogynist Land of Abuse and Polygamy? A New Film Depicts the Reality”

“For nearly two decades, UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson has dedicated his career to documenting the cultures of Indonesia and the human rights struggles of the Indonesian people. In his latest documentary, “Bitter Honey,” he tracks the physical, psychological and emotional toll the traditional practice of polygamy takes on Balinese women and families and the cruel double standard applied to men and women.”

-UCLA News , “Anthropologist’s film exposes plight of polygamy in Indonesia”

“Though culturally alien to most Westerners, the Balinese custom of polygamy as seen in Robert Lemelson’s documentary “Bitter Honey” seems like not such a bad idea. The wives and children he interviews at first appear content, the husbands reasonable. And Bali, one of the smaller Indonesian islands, bursts with color and music. It looks like the kind of place where people are happy.

Slowly, though, the film shows a darker picture, one in which women are deceived and forced into marriage. They endure domestic violence with little recourse. In short, Balinese polygamy is not just local custom, but one more instance of misogyny in the world.”

-Peter Keough, “‘Bitter Honey’ examines polygamy in paradise”

“Robert Lemelson’s Bitter Honey is a fascinating look inside the Indonesian province of Bali that is equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating…Achieving a level of intimacy many such films aspire to but rarely achieve, Lemelson’s documentary takes us inside the lives of three families, invests in us in their stories and elicits an emotional connection so strong it will be hard their stories from one’s mind…

Lemelson accomplishes so much by simply turning on the camera and letting his subjects speak. It’s refreshing to see a documentary that doesn’t resort to editorial tricks to make an emotional impact…”

-Daniel Tucker, “‘Bitter Honey’ Review”

Podcast on blogtalkradio.com of interview with Bitter Honey’s Producer

-Marcello Rolando, “Why Do Men Cheat – Bitter Honey”

“Female empowerment documentary exposing the betrayal and violence visited upon abused Balinese women stuck in polygamous marriages.”

-Kam Williams “Kam On Film: ‘St. Vincent,’ ‘Plot For Peace’ and What’s New In Theaters”

” 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…Bitter Honey is a difficult if eye-opening watch, though eventually all the horror stories and tears blend together.”

-Tricia Olszewski “Bitter Honey Film Review”

“The film was done almost 7 years by a local team in Bali and Los Angeles. “The film is watchable in America for fundraising and donated to the She said the campaign against polygamy is not only a tool for better changes. “Let us be more sensitive to the issues of women and children,” she explained.

Ni Nengah Budawati of LBH Bali said the film is shown to students and community leaders in Bali. One reason is to raise awareness to stop the cycle of violence impact polygamous marriage.

-Luh de Suriyani “Polygamy in Bali: 3 Men, 17 Wives, 20 Children”

“The film’s field producer Ninik Supartini said that Bitter Honey would be publicly screened in Indonesia by the beginning of next year.

In the US, the film has been screened in theaters in some major cities across the country including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC and Chicago, she added.

American audiences, according to Ninik, would also be asked to “take action” to help women in Indonesia and would be directed to the websites of foundations and legal aid institutes working in the region to help women physically, emotionally, psychologically and legally.

Speaking after a recent screening of the film at the University of Indonesia’s (UI) School of Law, LBH APIK legal aid group Bali director Ni Nengah Budawati said that Bitter Honey captured the plight of Balinese women in polygamous marriages.

A stigma against having children out of wedlock added to the problem, Budawati said. “The status of children born out of wedlock in Bali is very, very bad,” she says, adding that the children would be considered to have no hereditary line.

As such, they could not be ritually cremated under Balinese Hinduism, nor would space be made at the temple for their offspring to pray for them.“That’s why women who get pregnant out of wedlock can do nothing but accept to be made co-wives,” Budawati said.”

-Sri Wahyuni, “‘Bitter Honey’ shows polygamy’s hidden face in Bali” Jakarta Post

TRANSCRIPTION OF RADIO INTERVIEW:
L: Is polygamy legal because Islam is Indonesia’s dominant religion?

R: Bali is a Hindu society of about three million in a sea of about two hundred and fifty million Muslims.

L: 85% of Balinese population is Balinese Hindu?

R: Yeah.

L: Is there a special brand of Balinese Hinduism that you only find in Bali?

R: Yeah, I mean Hinduism in Bali is a special because it’s really only the indigenous Hinduism outside of India.

L: Cause I’ve never heard of polygamy in Hindu societies elsewhere.

R: There is polygamy in India in isolated communities, but it’s not legal in India, per se. It’s legal in Indonesia as it is in North Africa, the Middle East, insular southeast Asia.

L: Where does the name of your doc come from?

R: We named it Bitter Honey because “honey” means “second wife or third wife, or girlfriend” so we’re just pointing out that it’s both sweet and social conditions create a lot of bitterness for the women.

L: Does the law treat men and women different? I assume it does, usually in polygamy, the male is favored.

R: It depends which type of law you’re talking about. Under national law, no. Under customary law, which really governs most areas of social life, very much so. Men and women are quite different.

L: What happens when a husband comes to his wife and says I want to marry another women? Is there usually some type of conflict?

R: Again, typically under customary law and national law, men need to get permission. From the film actually, from their first wife to get a second wife. But the film documents how that is gotten around, either by or through deception of the second and third wife. Or deception of the first wife, or some forms of forced elopement in some cases comparable to kidnapping.

L: So these women feel pressure to do it even if they don’t want to do it? For example if you grew up in some cultures where polygamy is the norm then there are religious reasons for going along with it you don’t question it, this is the way things are.

R: I think most women would rather not be in polygamous unions, that’s been my experience. Either force or deceit or in some cases, we have one older story of a man who is 80 and has ten wives. And some of those wives said I wanted to marry him because he was a powerful man. I think in some ways it gave them access to resources, coming from poor families, that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. And then there’s others forms of polygamy we describe, the Balinese anthropologist in the film describes, it’s almost heroic acts when a women is disabled, or has some sort of illness, or is extremely poor, or has a child out of wedlock. It’s much better in an Indonesian village to be a second or third wife then to be an unmarried women. It’s a much more preferred status.

L: But you mentioned someone who had ten wives. Is there a limit? Could someone have 20, 30, if he could afford it?

R: Apocryphal stories of over 100 and documented cases among the highest castes, the rajah, or kingly castes, in modern times are 45.

L: Is there a minimum age for marriage in Indonesia?

R: That’s a good question, I don’t know what the minimum age is for marriage. I do know in the film, one of the fifth wives of Darma was in junior high school when he married her. But her family was quite opposed to it and he spent a few days in jail. The family forced the issue. But in the end of the day, he married her.

L: Some women say they reluctantly let their husbands remarry because he can take the children. Do custody laws favor the father in Indonesia?

R: Yeah, so, Bali’s, Balinese culture is patrilineal and patrilocal. So what that means is a man lives in a family compound. A grandfather with his brothers and families and a husband with his family and male children so it’s entirely male lineage. Women marry into that and when they want to leave, the children stay with the father, with the husbands lineage. They stay in that family compound.

L: Are there other times when women are allowed to keep their children?

R: Yeah, the film documents what’s called the nyentana marriage which is when there are three of four daughters and no sons are born and then they bring a male son into the family but he has different rights and responsibilities and privileges because he’s not really, he’s sort of a customary son but not the real biological son so when there’s a conflict and there’s divorce, the man leaves the compound. There’s one story in the film where the women got divorced. One woman out of 19 and she’s the only one who got to keep their children.

L: You reveal there is a new Indonesian law designed to protect first wives from their husbands remarrying without their consent. How effective is that at all?

R: You can have these national laws but customary laws really govern family issues. So in the United States, if you have family problems, the state can come in. Let’s say a parent is abusing a child, the state can come in and take away the child. In fact, if you tell that to people in Indonesia, they are just horrified that there’s a site in the world where the national government can send an agent to take a child away. But customary law also governs most husband, wife relationships status.

L: So there are anti-government feelings in Bali, not just the United States?

R: Yeah, it depends, that wasn’t allowed under the New Order from 1966-1998, there was an extremely autocratic, almost fascist regime under General Suharto. After 1998, there was a period of continuing democratization leading now up to the first really, fully democratically elected President Joko Widodo which most people on the progressive side feel is a good thing.

L: We have been talking about customary law, I’m sure this goes back a long time, but who adjudicates on customary law? Are there judges who say in this case we go in this direction and in this other case we go in another direction?

R: Customary law is more of rules and regulations and penalties and those are normally by village headman or at times pedanda or permangku which are local priests or village specialists. There’s not a law council per se.

L: There are lawyers, Luh Putu Anggrenni, who is a women’s rights attorney is something of a hero in your film.

R: Yeah, so she’s acts in some ways as both an agent of globalization and nationalism in the state and she’s, one of the things the film explores is this tension between customary law and local, cultural practices and globalized human rights issues. As an anthropologist, it’s a careful area I need to tread because I don’t want to be pointing fingers and saying this form of kinship, polygamy is bad or immoral, should be made illegal— I can’t do that. We have a strong belief in relativism, that’s kind of the basis in anthropology, but at some time that is sometimes in tension with globalized human rights discourses and set standards of behavior so we have to work in that middle area.

L: How common is polygamy around the world and does it tend to fall into certain patterns?

R: So polygamy isn’t banned in sub-saharan Africa, in North Africa, in the Middle East and insular southeast Asia.

L: And spots in the United States and Mexico.

R:I guess I always kind of leaves those out because this is where it’s legal. And to my understanding polygamy is not legal in the United States, but it’s practiced.

L: it’s the subject of a lot of television shows.

R: We’ve been in contact with a few principles of those shows but they’re not all that interested in our depictions of polygamy.

L: Does it tend to be the same that families are kept apart or do they all live int eh same house? Are the children all intermingled? Considered all part of one big family, or do they all tend to stay with their mothers?

R: So we showed different iterations of that in the film. In one case, four of five wives live in one single compound, in other cases, the wives live separately, and in another case, three wives live here another two live there, so it’s quite diverse.

L: The film we’re talking about is Bitter Honey made by UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson, it’s playing at the IFC center until this coming Friday and it follows the lives of three polygamous families. So how did you meet them?

R: So I was working in Indonesia on a project on the 1956 mass-killings that resulted in a film called “40 Years of Silence.” At the end of that project, I was interested in continuing the work examine the relationship between culture and history and social violence. One of the issues that activist friends wanted me to focus on was the mass rapes of Chinese women which occurred in the end of the Suharto regime in 1990s. There were 3-4,000 women who were subject to sexual terrorism alleged by agent provocateurs of the outgoing Suharto regime. So we started that project, it turned out not to be a doable film project for a number of reasons, but in the process, we were interviewing women who were subject to different forms of gender based violence and it just so happened that a number of these that we interviewed in Bali happened to be in a polygamous family. That’s not to say that gender based violence is restricted to polygamous unions. Absolutely not, it’s a problem throughout Indonesia and 90% of the families are not polygamous. There are gender based violence in those societies just as there are in many other societies in the world.

L: The husbands in these polygamous marriages often say that it’s their karma to have more then one wife.

R: In anthropology, psychological anthropology, we have a notion of what’s been known as a culturally constituted defense mechanism. That’s where I think we can think of concepts in our own society where we take large scale ideologies and then we use them for very specific purposes to explain shameful or difficult or stigmatized or hidden things in our own lives. And I think men in the film use notions of karma to justify or rationalize their behavior.

L: It’s been in my family for generations.

R: Yup. That’s an inheritance explanatory mechanism to say because my ancestors behaved in such a way, then it’s passed down to me.

L: Does Indonesian law have requirements for men before they can marry more than one woman?

R: Law, per se, no. But cultural notions, we show this in the film through a puppet show and the puppets kind of standing in for larger ideologies of proper behavior. The puppeteer talks about men having to be able to support their wives and they have to be able to support their children and they have to be treated with justice and fairly. What the film shows is that the men don’t really rise to those levels.

L: One of them, Sadra, gives no money to his wife, Purniasih, and in fact, he kind of lives off the earnings of his wives.

R: Yeah, it goes very much against what the—

L: He lies to them. He doesn’t tell the next wife that he has another wife.

R: Yeah, deception we found was the key to how men got multiple wives.

L: In fact, Sadra’s second wife, Murni, didn’t know her partner was married until she became pregnant. So that’s when he told her I’ll marry you, but I’m already married?

R: Yes, this would be, I mentioned, it an unwed mother in the village is a much poorer status than the second or third wife, so what we show in the film is that men got in general two wives, as men who were having affairs often do, in our society by deceiving them, by lying, by saying, oh, I’m not married, you’ll be the only one. And then when they bring the girlfriend to that point, or their fiancé, to their house compound, there’s already another wife there.

L: In some cases they also got prostitutes and endanger all of their wives because there is a possibility of becoming HIV infected.

R: Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, there’s a very, very high rate of HIV. Like 25% of sex workers in Bali are HIV+ and for a variety of many other reasons men are either unwilling or unknowledgeable about safe sex practices such as using condoms. So it’s really not just putting one wife at risk, it’s putting five at risk.

L: And five is the number that Darma has? They all live with him in the same house. His third wife said she didn’t know until their wedding day that it was going to be a joint wedding but she still went along with it. And his fourth wife said she would like to escape but she can’t because he’ll beat her.

R: The film has a section on violence and power and how those are utilized by the men for different purposes, but for the purpose of control largely.

L: Balinese women, largely, express concerns for their souls if they get divorced. Why?

R: So Balinese have a notion of cyclical reincarnation of souls. So, for example, if I was Balinese, the soul from my body would have descended from my great, great grandfather and later descend to my great, great grandchildren so it’s this kind of this eternal recycling of souls within a family lineage. You know, a lot of other notions of reincarnation go out of the family lineage to an animal perhaps if you behave really poorly or perhaps to a higher being. In Bali, it remains in the family lineage. So what happens when a women marries into a man’s compound, she enters into that cyclical reincarnation cycle in a man’s lineage. So when she gets divorced, her soul doesn’t have anywhere to go and that is a very, very disturbing thing for Balinese. And it’s one of the cultural forces keeping the divorce rate at roughly 5-7%. Java, which is right next door, the island across a 15 mile strait, there is a 50-60% divorce rate. Bali has a 5-10% divorce rate.

L: One of the things most people are curious about in polygamous relationships is do the wives become jealous of each other?

R: Yeah, we explore that one, it was certainly a question we ask. Yes and no. I think initially probably most of the women, it’s quite logical human nature. Jealousy is part of human nature. But I think most of the women adapted themselves to that.

L: Do the wives who are being abused have any recourse? Can they go to the authorities?

R: So that was of the things the film also explored. It turns out the local authorities, either the police or the village headmen are unwilling or unable to assist so we have human rights workers like Bu Angrenni, the lawyer to step in, and see her doing an intervention in the film. But we as a production company, Elemental Productions, in collaboration with local activists and psychologists, the first gender based intervention program in Bali. We’re putting a lot of money into that and we’re using the film in an activist sense to raise awareness and to help bring change to Balinese villages.

L: Does this represent a change in anthropology? Because for a long time anthropologists were concerned that their intervention would change a culture, distort a culture.

R: I mean I grew up with Star Trek and the prime directive that we don’t—

L: I was thinking back to Margaret Mead

R: Yes, of course, this was a generation before Mead. I think that the notion of the fly on the wall anthropologist, participant observer, but not involved in any way is a valid one. But I also think there’s an emerging understanding that we have responsibilities towards the people that we work with. Particularly, I’ve been working in Indonesia for 20 years. I go back every year, and some of my films, I’ve done a dozen films. Some of the films take place over more than a decade so in the beginning of the film, one of the characters is a five year old child, at the end, they’re an adult.

L: Although we’re not seeing as many films from anthropologists as we did earlier in the history of films. Do you think that the audience has lost a certain amount of curiosity.

R: I think it’s been, it’s a matter of finance, and I think actually there’s an emerging interest in visual anthropology and I’m really. I teach ethnographic film at UCLA but I’m also a proponent of new multi-modality forms of education and filmmaking. I think that will be a very strong direction with the ease and inexpensive nature of digital technology.

L: Robert Lemelson will be doing a Q&A after the 6:20pm screening at the IFC Center. His film, Bitter Honey, runs there through this coming Friday. And my great thanks to you for coming on the show today.

R: Thanks, Leonard.

-Leonard Lopate Show, WYNC “‘Bitter Honey’: a Portrait of Polygamous Marriage”

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