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.)
Lemelson’s interviews can be repetitive in their direct staging, but there’s inspiration in his conceit of using a shadow-puppet performance set to gamelan music as interludes. The segments these brief passages divide are arranged according to different aspects of polygamous marriage: power, violence, divorce.
According to old lore, we’re told in one of these segments, men gain power from having many wives. Yet for all the cultural, even mythical explanations, one passing joke may explain it best: “Men are like cats: Give them a fish and they’ll eat it.”