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‘Bitter Honey’ examines polygamy in paradise

A puppet show in a scene from “Bitter Honey.”
A puppet show in a scene from “Bitter Honey.”Elemental Productions

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.


Lemelson is a filmmaker and professor of anthropology at UCLA who has been doing research in Indonesia for 20 years. Among his documentaries is “40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy” (2009), which explores the same 1965 Indonesian bloodbath as Joshua Oppenheimer mined in his Oscar-nominated “The Act of Killing.” Interviewed by phone from his home in Los Angeles, Lemelson discusses polygamy, the allure of Indonesia, and why he makes movies.

Q. After watching this and “The Act of Killing” people might get a negative impression of Indonesia. What is its appeal for you?

A. The films indeed deal with dark stuff, but Bali is a wonderful place. I would hate for the film to keep people away. It’s not dangerous, and Josh and I explore these subjects because we’ve been there for so long. Also, for an anthropologist Indonesia is one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, ideal for someone interested in the relationship between culture and personal experience.

Q. How did you start making documentaries?

A. I was doing research in Indonesia and a friend who was an ethnographic filmmaker came for a couple of weeks and followed me around. Since 2000 we’ve come back every year to make films.


”Bitter Honey.”
”Bitter Honey.” Elemental Productions

Q. Isn’t it difficult to maintain scientific objectivity when confronted with some of the injustices in “Bitter Honey”?

A. As anthropologists we take the prime directive from “Star Trek,” the relativism question, seriously. I don’t want to point a finger at a kinship system and say it’s bad. But the stories are not so much about polygamy as they are about gender relations and power.

Q. One of the husbands in “Bitter Honey” mentions killing communists in 1965. Why don’t you pursue that topic?

A. We had an earlier cut where we included that subject and decided that it took the film in a tangent to a different subject, one I had investigated in “40 Years.” In that film I had interviewed some of the same guys as did Josh Oppenheimer in “The Act of Killing.” I give him credit for being up to his elbows in real evil for a long time. It’s like being with unrepentant Nazis. I honestly don’t have the stomach for it.

Q. Does “Bitter Honey” have an activist purpose?

A. We’re using the film now to fight against gender-based violence in Bali. I hope it helps women empower themselves and gain agency and choice in their lives.

“Bitter Honey” opens at the Apple Fresh Pond Oct. 24-30. The director will attend the 7 p.m. screening on Oct. 30. For more information, go to www.bitterhoneyfilm.com.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.