“Bitter Honey” Conundrum: Do No Harm (Part 1 of 2)

“Since the mid-1960s, anthropologists in the United States have been attempting to spell out in some detail their ethical responsibilities. This is difficult enough for ordinary ethnographic research; for ethnographic filmmaking, it is almost impossible.” –Karl G. Heider, “Ethnographic Film”, p. 110

            Elemental Productions’ next large project is a documentary that explores contemporary polygamous practices in Bali, Indonesia, entitled Bitter Honey. Shot over six years, this feature-length film documents the plight of Balinese co-wives in three polygamous marriages—marriages that are often characterized by psychological manipulation, economic hardship, infidelity, HIV/AIDS exposure, and domestic violence. Many of the reasons compelling women to stay in these marriages are due to the cultural, social, and legal frameworks and institutions that dominate Balinese life. However, as the film also documents, there are people and organizations on the ground that are working tirelessly to protect and empower these women. As an advocacy tool, the film is potentially very powerful to spur a national conversation and change the circumstances that many Balinese women find themselves in. But with that power comes a host of ethical issues. Two that I wish to discuss in this post are reducing harm to subjects and obtaining informed consent.

In the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics, the cardinal rule is that anthropologists should “do no harm” while conducting research. What constitutes “harm” is left rather vague, but it includes bodily, material well-being, and harm to dignity. The challenge for ethnographic filmmakers is to anticipate the potential damage that a film might bring upon its subjects. In the case of the upcoming film, the question of whether harm will come to our subjects entered the conversation at the point where we had to show it to the subjects themselves for the first time. Our concerns about the safety of our subjects were twofold. Our first concern was for the psychological welfare of the women presented in the film. When it comes to polygamous marriages, the film is not neutral. It casts them in a negative light and takes a definitive stance against these unions. In fact, there is the implication that polygamous practice imprisons women in a potential death sentence. To build this case, the film pulls together a coherent narrative of what is really going on in Bali and details the factors that are at work to keep women in unhappy marriages—including patriarchal societal structure, unequal marriage laws, cultural stigmatization of unmarried women, and religious/spiritual constraints on marriage types, inheritance, and reincarnation. While our subjects live this reality, we worried that seeing aspects of their situations presented together, one after another, to make a case for their suffering could cause psychological harm. While the co-wives realize their entrapment on a certain level, having it served on a platter for them—“here you go, these are all the reasons you can’t leave your unhappy and at times violent marriage”—is something entirely different, and potentially psychological damaging.

A second concern was for the physical well being of our subjects. In all three families in the film, the wives are submissive to the husband and domestic violence is present to some degree. In addition, many of the wives revealed unflattering opinions about their husbands—things that would never be said to their husbands’ faces. These revelations appear in the final cut of the film and our worry is that by showing these statements to their husbands, violent retaliation may be taken out against the wives. However, it isn’t as simple as the men physically harming the women; the internal politics and statuses among the wives make the issue more complex. For example, Dewi, the fourth wife of one of the polygamists, is a family “scapegoat” and continually blamed for things by her husband and the other wives. To make the film in an ethical and conscious way, we had to make sure that Dewi’s co-wives would not gang up on her and/or reveal to their husband some of the unflattering things she says about him in the film.

In order to avoid this harm, we discussed for many weeks how to first show the film to the subjects. We considered many possibilities, but finally came up with a plan that—in our minds—would lessen any potential damage. While we were in Bali this past September, the plan was implemented by first screening the film to Mrs. Anggreni, a local Women and Children’s Advocacy lawyer. Her impression of the film was that it would be a great teaching tool in Bali and definitely needed to be seen by locals. The next day we arranged a private screening with Mrs. Anggreni and Dewi. Dewi similarly had a positive reaction to the film and said that she would be comfortable with showing the film to her co-wives.

Private screening. From left: Mrs. Anggreni, local collaborator Sri, and Dewi

Private screening. From left: Mrs. Anggreni, local collaborator Sri, and Dewi

Two nights later, a large screening was held with all of the wives from the two main families depicted in the film, their daughters, and two female Indonesian therapists. In a post-screening discussion, we were pleased to see all of the wives coming together as a united front. They discussed how they saw themselves as sharing the same suffering and fate and positioned themselves to protect one another.

Ninik (Therapist):  Meeting with other wives, with other mothers, who have experienced the same fate, what would you say it’s like?

Karmila:           It’s like this, I see that these friends here, they have the same sad fate, like that.

Nitia:                The same fate.

Nuri:                 The same fate, bad luck, bad luck.

The wives and their children at the screening

The wives and their children at the screening.

Many of them realized the power of the film as an educational tool for both women and men to raise awareness of the effects of polygamous arrangements. Many of them expressed interest in joining a “road show” of village-level screenings around Bali, and speaking to audiences about their experiences. We had planned to show the film to the men and their sons the following day with a male-only crew. We asked the women if they would be comfortable with us showing the film to their husbands:

Ninik (therapist):  The last question from us is if, for example, we gather together your husbands, and also your sons, and we show them the film, what do you think will happen?

Shinta:             He would complain again.

Nuri:                 No.

Shinta:             Maybe.

Nuri:                 If he saw it for himself, maybe he wouldn’t do that as much.

Dewi:               He would be aware.

Nuri:                 He could become aware.

Shinta:             He could be ashamed.

Nuri:                 He could be ashamed, ashamed of himself.

Shinta:             Seeing himself like that.

Nuri:                 You can show it.

It looked like our ethical issues of doing no harm were behind us, but then the conversation took a turn. Many of the wives took issue with one particular scene in the film. When we parted, they had not yet given us permission to show the film with the scene as it is.


—–Read Part 2 for the scene in question and obtaining consent—–

Julia Zsolnay

Julia Zsolnay graduated from UCLA with a degree in Anthropology and has been working at Elemental Productions since 2012.

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