The Jakarta Post
Bitter Honey, the latest feature-length documentary from filmmaker Robert Lemelson, intimately and emotionally presents the stories of three families in Bali, revealing the hidden face of polygamy on the resort island.
As the film says, approximately 10 percent of Balinese families are polygamous. Men in these unions often take multiple brides without their spouses' consent.
Filmed over the course of seven years, the documentary portrays the plight of Balinese co-wives, for whom marriage is frequently characterized by psychological manipulation, infidelity, domestic violence and economic hardship.
Living in a society where men have authority in many domains, these women have little voice or agency to protest the conditions of their domestic lives.
Yet, perhaps because of Bali's reputation as a world-renowned tourist paradise, people have looked the other way.
Lemelson, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and also a research anthropologist at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience at UCLA, is no stranger to Indonesia.
He directed several films included in the Afflictions: Culture and Mental Illness in Indonesia anthology and Standing on the Edge of a Thorn, about a family in rural Java grappling with poverty, mental illness and participation in the sex industry.
Lemelson also produced Forty Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy, which explored the mass killings of 1965 and 1966.
Women from the three polygamous families in Bitter Honey share their stories of coercion and betrayal ' and their courageous struggle for empowerment and equal rights.
One of the women in the documentary, Purniasih, for example, describes the violent behavior of her husband, Sadra, and how hurt she was when he began secretly dating another woman, Murni, who he later took as a second wife after she fell pregnant.
Purniasih also revealed that she was forced to consent to her husband's second marriage because he threatened to send her home to her parents without her children if she refused.
Murni told a similarly sad story, saying that she did not know that Sadra already had a wife when she married him.
She also said she had to continue to work to support herself and her children because Sadra never fed her growing family.
Purniasih and Murni each have four children fathered by Sadra.
The second family portrayed in the documentary is that of Made Darma, who is in his late forties and who has four wives and one former wife.
Darma claims that he was destined to be polygamous.
He married his first wife, Kiawati, after dropping out of high school. The marriage ended in divorce after Kiawati caught Darma cheating with another woman.
After the divorce, Darma found success and prestige in the informal sector, using his size, strength and natural charisma to carve himself a niche as a local thug, running gambling games, supervising cockfights and providing private security services to local political gatherings.
Darma married his second and third wives, Suliasih and Rasti, around the same time, without advising any of the women about his other marriages.
He started seeing his fourth wife, Suciati, while she was still in junior high school and forcibly married her after kidnapping her.
He also married his fifth wife, Purnawati, when she was still in junior high school.
Like Suciati, Purnawati also said she did not know that Darma already had wives when he began dating her and later made her marry him.
'The suffering started when I found out he already had many wives,' Purnawati said.
The third family portrayed is that of Sang Putu Tuaji, a Balinese man in his 80s who has had 10 wives, five of whom are still living.
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.
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