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A still from "Bitter Honey" | Elemental Productions
A still from "Bitter Honey"
A still from “Bitter Honey” | Elemental Productions

Filmmaker and UCLA anthropologist Robert Lemelson spent seven years filming three polygamous families in Bali, which he features in his documentary, “Bitter Honey.” While polygamy is legal in Bali, only 10% of recorded marriages are between one man and more than one woman. Apparently, however, not all such marriages in the country are formally recorded.

The film is a fascinating portrait of Bali in general and these families specifically. The older of the three men has had ten wives, although only five of them are still alive. Of the two younger men profiled, one has five wives and the other a modest two. This is not just an anthropological study, however. It’s a call for women’s rights.

A still from "Bitter Honey"
A still from “Bitter Honey” | Elemental Productions

You might expect all of the players in a story like this to claim they’re satisfied with the arrangement because after all, it’s what they know – it’s a tradition they have grown up to expect. But the truth is that at least some of the women were tricked into the arrangement and aren’t at all happy to have to share their husbands with other women. One of them showed up for her wedding, only to discover that he was planning to marry someone else at the same time.

The worst of the story, however, is that the women are victims of both physical and psychological abuse. They are even expected to work to support the family. They fear leaving because of threats of violence, but none of them want their children to continue the tradition of polygamy.

Perhaps Lemelson’s film will encourage some change. From what I understand, the women profiled in the film are helping out with local screenings, and protections have been put in place to attempt to prevent their husbands from retaliating against them for speaking honestly on camera.

The film opened in Los Angeles on Oct. 3, 2014 and will be screened in several cities this fall. Check the film’s website for dates.

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