Forbidden Lie$

(Anna Broinowski, Australia, 2009)


There are surprises in store for the viewer of this superb Australian documentary, but the major revelation that sets Forbidden Lie$ in motion was old news by the time the film first appeared publicly in its home country in early 2007.


Norma Khouri’s 2003 “true life” bestseller Forbidden Love, about the “honour killing” in Jordan of a woman named Dalia, is full of fabrications, many of which bear upon the author’s own biography. While, in the initial book-promotion interviews (sampled to great effect in the film), she appeared to be passing herself off as a girlish and giggly “Jordanian virgin”, Khouri was at the time married with several kids – and had spent years living in America.


This much was revealed by Sydney Morning Herald reporter Malcolm Knox in 2004, and the damage was continued by other investigators around the world – especially in Jordan. But Forbidden Lie$ is more of a journey into the strange mind of Khouri – real name Bagain, married name Touliopoulos – than an objective inquiry into the facts, although it has plenty of fun in the investigative dig for those facts, which makes for an entertaining and suspenseful ride.


Although Anna Broinowski began shooting Forbidden Lie$ after the hoax became public, the film itself starts off before that moment, conveying Khouri’s original account of events as if in total, gullible thrall to her myth-making. This leads to a splendid turning point at around the 17 minute mark, in which when the image almost literally disintegrates, and a new narrating voice – that of angry Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini – takes over. 


Broinowski – whose earlier documentaries include Helen’s War: Portrait of a Dissident (2004), about environmental and anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott, and Hell Bento! Uncovering the Japanese Underground (1995) – has clearly declared her main impetus for making Forbidden Lie$.  She intends to present the powerful arguments of Husseini and others in the film concerning the inflated, Western myth of a general Islamic “culture of honour killing” and its archaic, domestic imprisonment of women.


This twist in the film’s viewpoint, added to the many playful touches when (even past its end credits) it owns up to its own tricks and artifices, will remind some viewers of the greatest movie ever made on the subject of literary and artistic hoaxes: Orson Welles’s F For Fake (1973).


Like Broinowski, Welles found himself in the midst of a story that would not stop unravelling and complicating itself – in his case, the presence, in some documentary footage concerning art forger Elmyr de Hory, of a mysterious figure who was about to be revealed as himself an extraordinary hoaxer: Clifford Irving, author of a fake biography of Howard Hughes. From this mosaic of confusion, Welles span a profound essay on the nature of fakery, from the tawdriest scam to the most sublime artwork.


Broinowski has cheerfully admitted her fondness and admiration for F For Fake, but she does not attempt to match its scope or ambition. She eschews any reflective voice-over narration, and likewise does not put herself centre-stage (Michael Moore or Agnès Varda style) within the images – although her bewilderment at various points makes for a good directorial cameo.


She thus keeps her material firmly and safely inside the documentary exposé genre – a small army of journalists, publishers, doctors, lawyers and the subject’s ex-friends are interviewed – and away from the riskier, more freewheeling category of the essay-film.


Nonetheless, while it unfolds as a particularly enthralling “current affairs” story, Forbidden Lie$ plays right at the edges of documentary form. Taking full advantage of digital techniques, Broinowski embeds images within multiple screens and cheekily overdubs unreal sound effects. Events, when reprised, run in fast motion or backwards, and there is plenty of Welles-style freeze-frame punctuation.


Technology is everywhere in this film – even to the point of confronting various participants with statements played back on laptop computers placed on their beds. The songs “Smooth Operator” and “She’s Not There” allow barbed editorial comment. There is always a fleeting image – often comical or ironic – to illustrate anything mentioned by anyone: a place, an action, an object.


“Dramatic reconstruction” of Dalia’s tale is also delivered in the juiciest and most sensationalist TV style. Broinowski, as she demonstrates, is happy to use every “magic trick” available within the cinematic medium – and it is hardly surprising to learn that she hopes to move into the realm of satirical fiction with a project tackling the legacy of the conservative years in Australia under Prime Minister John Howard.


The spiral that Forbidden Lie$  traces is fascinating. Khouri maintains right to the end – and still does, beyond it – that her ever more elaborate lies serve only to hide the truth that she vowed, up front, never to reveal: the real identity of Dalia. She is merely attempting (as she repeatedly claims) to protect her friends from danger in this “repressive regime”.


Despite every insinuation that the film lays out – especially about Khouri’s alleged criminal past in Chicago – this extravagant claim of hers retains a vestige of validity. I found myself (like the filmmaker) wanting to believe her baroque logic, and her devotion to the cause of righting the wrong of honour killing – even though the evidence points to the likely possibility that she is simply a consummate con artist who did it all for the money.


The deeper the film digs, the more we may come to see Khouri as a peculiarly compulsive fabulist or sociopath on a wicked celebrity kick – particularly as she leads Broinowski around the supposed “real locations” of the book, or sends her off to medical records archives with selective scraps of misleading information.


But is she telling lie upon lie simply to avoid the moment of truth, her ultimate public exposure? Or does this compulsion derive from some darker, still more secret personal trauma that she endured early in life, and that continued in her marriage?


Yet another possibility silently floats, a Parallax View-style conspiracy theory, through the interstices of the film’s researches and revelations: that, given the concatenation of the FBI letting her go free (in relation to her Chicago activities), the support of her book by Liz Cheney, the mysterious bureaucratic strings pulled to get her relocated to Australia, and the well-timed, anti-Islamic propaganda-punch of Forbidden Love in the aftermath of September 11 2001 (something Broinowski herself raises in the film, but then drops), maybe Khouri is some kind of stooge with a secret she truly cannot reveal?


Like many documentaries aimed today – and why not? – at the popular market, Forbidden Lie$ ends up placing more weight on individual psychology (as unfathomable as it may be in this case)  than on a broader politics of society, media and culture. However, Broinowski gives us enough to chew on, even if sometimes only in passing, on all these fronts. And her film, in the best Errol Morris tradition, wields an energetic cinematic kick.


Worldwide fans of this film need only be informed that the Australian DVD edition from Madman contains 70 minutes of intriguing extras, including an audio commentary by Broinowski and Khouri, more on Khouri’s husband John, a deleted scene titled “Goose Chase”, the “Director’s Diary”, and an analysis (by The Thin Red Line’s Miranda Otto) of “Norma the Actress”.

© Adrian Martin September 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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