Anna Broinowski’s “Forbidden Lie$” is one of the year’s best films. It is an extraordinary triumph of nonfiction filmmaking, presenting a wild mind game that leaves the viewer invigorated by its sheer audacity and complexity.
The central focus here is Norma Khouri, a Jordanian who authored the 2003 book “Forbidden Love.” That book, which detailed the tragic events of a so-called honor killing in her native country, became an international best-seller. But after the book was made available in Jordan, complaints began to arise. Many Jordanians, particularly several feminist writers, noticed glaring errors in Khouri’s description of Jordanian customs, especially in regard to the lives of Muslim women. Attempts to confirm the events of Khouri’s story proved fruitless – no evidence could be found regarding the life and death the young Muslim woman cited by Khouri.
By July 2004, Khouri has relocated to Australia, but the local press began to add more fuel to the fire. Khouri, who presented herself as a “Catholic virgin,” was outed at Norma Bagain Touliopoulos, a wife and mother of two. Furthermore, it was discovered that she was being sought by American law enforcement agents for her role in a series of swindles. And if that wasn’t bad enough, it appeared that Khouri never kept her word about donating a portion of book royalties to charitable groups that work towards the emancipation of women in the Arab world.
Incredibly, Khouri is front and center as the star of “Forbidden Lie$.” She fields every accusation thrown her way and fires back with an unsinkable spirit. Every dubious question is given a full answer by her – except that many of the answers seem to raise more questions, thus begetting more answers that generate a new batch of questions.
What is utterly astonishing about Khouri is her brazen ability to be front and center on her insistence that “Forbidden Love” is not fiction. She even invites Broinowski to join her in Jordan as a means of confirming the story. The Jordanian trip is utterly bizarre – Khouri, who is accompanied by a hunky young man who is supposedly her “bodyguard,” visits the sites from her book and makes inquiries regarding the events she wrote about. Yet she is utterly incapable of producing any evidence to back her story, although her elderly father says the story is correct. Khouri later accuses her father of molesting her when she was young, but no evidence is brought forth to confirm that.
Broinowski also interviews a wealth of people who have been flattened by Khouri’s actions. Her estranged husband, a Greek native, was left by her in Australia following her return to the U.S. (He has some sketchy visa problems that prevent him from following her.) Khouri accuses him of masterminding the swindles she was accused of and throws in abuse charges, which he categorically denies. Other people who claim to be duped by Khouri, including Australian journalist Malcolm Knox and ex-heroin addict Rachel Richardson, who watched Khouri’s kids when she fled to the U.S., provide an astonished chorus of disbelief regarding Khouri’s antics.
But, ultimately, Khouri gets the last word – over and over, no matter what charges are thrown her way. And even though her responses become increasingly tangled, it is impossible not to be convinced that there is a possibility (no matter how fragile) that she might be telling the truth. . . for once.
“Forbidden Lie$” puts forth challenging concepts of reality versus fraud and then takes them for a heady spin. The resulting work is emotionally exhausting yet invigorating. It is easy to get caught up in Khouri’s misadventures while wondering how she can possibly get away with her tales. Incredibly, she does – and the genuine shock comes in discovering that she is still playing everyone for a sucker, without remorse.
Broinowski makes it clear that she is not supportive of Khouri’s antics, yet she gives her free reign of the film. It is a bold move, but the gamble pays off as her chase for the truth becomes more intense. Inventive editing, slick digital cinematography and a light but fanciful dash of CGI effects provide a visual flair that matches Khouri’s audacious personality.
I genuinely hope no one decides to make a narrative feature film of Khouri’s deeds, because “Forbidden Lie$” does such a bang-up job within the nonfiction film realm that no narrative fiction film could possibly come close to the real thing.