Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bitter Honey

I suspect that the way Bitter Honey is rolling out across the country is similar to the way films used to release: Book it in a theater, have someone make an appearance if possible, rely on the venue to advertise it locally. On top of that, I'm not sure I can remember another time when I've seen a director visit and do a Q&A for the very last screening; usually, whether it's a festival or a local booking, they'll come to the first. That way, you start off with an event which hopefully generates some word of mouth for the rest of the run. I guess this is just when director Robert Lemelson could make the trip to Boston and New York easiest.

That the visit seemed almost entirely unpublicized was strange, too - I saw that the film was playing for a week in the usual places, and probably would have seen it earlier in the run but for some bad timing, and then, on Wednesday, seeing a Facebook ad that mentioned Lemelson's visit on Thursday. Nothing on Apple Cinemas' website. Crazy, that; it's often like they're using a standard movie theater site template that includes a news feed that often has little if anything to do with what's actually going to play there (many is the time I've gotten excited for a coming attraction only to have it not show). I want to like them a bit more; they're on my way home, have been upgrading their facilities, and seem to make a genuine effort to play movies that would otherwise slip through the cracks, but they don't make it easy sometimes!

"Bitter Honey" director Robert Lemelson

Lemelson did an interesting Q&A, rather different than many I've seen. The format was the same, but Lemelson seems to be a different sort of director, an anthropologist first and a filmmaker second. That was the jargon he would toss off, and there wasn't any sort of moment when someone in the audience with an interest in the subject matter asked about doing more along those lines only to be disappointed that the director who had just spent years on one subject planned to move on to something else. Lemelson is interested in the culture of this part of the world, and that was very clear.

One interesting bit that didn't make it into the film might have put things in a bit more context: Polygamy is legal in Bali because it is part of Indonesia, but it exists in a very different cultural place there than it does in the rest of the country. Most of Indonesia is Muslim, whereas Bali is mostly Hindu, and while both cultures apparently have the option for multiple wives, it seems less strictly regulated in Bali than it would be for the Muslim majority. He described it as a source of friction, which I don't doubt.

It didn't make it into the movie, though, in part because the future of this movie is as an educational tool; he spoke about pieces of it already being used in local community centers and the like. It will probably do quite well in that role, even if it's not quite something you'd bring people to the cinema to see.

Bitter Honey

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 October 2014 in Apple Cinemas Cambridge #7 (first-run, DCP)

Bitter Honey opens with a bit of informative text, including the fact that it was filmed over a seven year period. It's an odd bit of information to include, because while director Robert Lemelson does a fair job of expanding upon the statistics about polygamy in Bali and how it affects the people involved, it is not nearly as successful at the storytelling aspect which would make the film's time axis genuinely important. Instead, Lemelson concentrates on being informative and lets the audience handle empathy and anger.

As those opening words inform us, polygamy is legal in Indonesia, and is particularly common in Bali, an island with a mostly Hindu population. Ten percent of all officially registered marriages there include multiple wives, and unregistered arrangements likely boost that number even higher. Lemelson presents us with three: Sadra married Purniasiah when they were teenagers and added a "honey" (Balinese slang for a second wife) later; Darma has five wives and seems a prosperous man about town; and elderly royal descendant Tuaji has had ten wives, with five still living and two sisters.

The film does not wind up spending much time with the Tuaji family past the initial introduction, which may in some ways be for the best; described at one point as a "vicious" member of the Nationalist Party back in the day, his backstory is the sort that could derail Bitter Honey into being a different movie (that movie is The Act of Killing and you should absolutely see it). That still leaves Lemelson with plenty of voices to contribute, and though Sadra's and Darma's families' stories are similar in many ways, they do have different shapes: Sadra seems to have basically left Purniasiah to fend for herself while taking a younger wife and Darma (who says he wants a "lively household") has a home that is divided into sectors, with each wife having her own kitchen and rooms for her children.

Full review at EFC.

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