The small Indonesian island of Bali still evokes images of a tropical paradise where Westerners can escape the discontents of the so-called developed world. Much of that romance lingers in "Bitter Honey," Robert Lemelson's seven-year study of the island — in its vividly colored flowers, birds, and clothing, its serene beaches, and in the incantatory music on the soundtrack.
And at first glance the institution that is his subject — polygamous marriage — could be regarded as just a different kind of kinship system that should not be judged by the standards of our culture. The men, women, and children in the three families under scrutiny appear to be content with their lives, at least in the beginning of the film. But as Lemelson probes deeper, he uncovers a familiar pattern of patriarchal oppression.
Perhaps the turning point occurs with Darma and his five wives and numerous children. A hulking figure, intimidating though genial, Darma explains how he keeps the extended family organized and orderly. Fair enough, but then one of the wives explains how she had been kidnapped by her husband while in junior high and forced to sign a marriage certificate.
More sinister is the octogenarian Tuaji, a rich and powerful local nabob who explains what a nice guy he is and then blandly admits that he participated in the massacre of hundreds of thousands of communists and other undesirables in 1965. This little known genocide is the subject of Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated documentary "The Act of Killing" (2012) and of Lemelson's own "40 Years of Silence: An Indonesian Tragedy" (2009).
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.
"Bitter Honey" does offer hope. Kiawati, Darma's first wife, took advantage of a loophole in local law and was able to leave her husband with custody of her children. Unfortunately, she must support them by carrying bricks on her head for pitiful wages. And though baby-faced wife-beater Sadra agrees to see a counselor, his commitment to change seems unconvincing. But maybe another generation will bring change, as Darma's teenage son, disgusted by the brutality, vows never to become like his father.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.