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Finding humanity in the book of lies


Forbidden LiesForbidden Lies: 100 minutes. Rated: M. Director: Anna Broinowski. Starring: Norma Khouri

The title is apt, for this is a documentary about lies. Not just the big lies, canny 'sells' and half-truths piled up by its notorious heroine, author and confessed literary fraud Norma Khouri. It's equally concerned with more ingrained forms of lying — the way media spin facts into versions of the truth, or how writers (and documentary filmmakers, for that matter) employ artistic licence in order to carry their particular cause.

Khouri is a fascinating subject, whose offences are well documented. In 2001 she published a book called Forbidden Love, which purported to detail the case of a close Jordanian friend who was killed by her family for falling in love with a Christian. Astute journos and experts in Middle Eastern culure have long since debunked any claim to factuality that the purportedly non-fiction book made. But this was only after the compelling subject matter and Khouri's own charisma helped propel it onto international bestseller lists.

Despite the patently erroneous geographical and cultural details in the book, and the lies and half-truths Khouri has since told about her own life in order to help sell the story, she maintains to this day that the book is essentially true — that she did have a close friend who fell victim to an honour killing. She also insists that her motivation has always been to put pressure on the Jordanian government to change laws that protect the perpetrators of honour killings — an honourable cause on her part, despite dubious means.

You want to believe her. You really do. So does Broinowski, who breaks out of the director's traditional objective position and becomes a character in her own film, travelling with Khouri to Jordan to allow her the chance to prove herself on camera. Still Khouri proves elusive. The tension between her and the frustrated filmmaker is palpable.

Khouri is caught conning so often that it becomes difficult to believe anything she says. It is fascinating to listen to her subtly change her story or revise her own words in order to cover holes in her testimony. She rarely misses a beat. If she's lying, she does so eloquently. One expert talking head in the documentary suggests she's a pathological liar. She's certainly a liar — the question is, how big a liar?

Broinowski experiments with traditional documentary structure to great effect. There are the obligatory talking heads, including Khouri's nemeses such as Australian journalist Malcolm Knox, who first broke the story over her literary fraud, and feisty Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini, who has campaigned within the Jordanian legal system for years against government complicity in honour killings.

But Broinowski also films her subjects watching each other's testimonials on television monitors and laptop computers, to capture their uncensored, real-time reactions and responses. Claims are pored over, semantics examined, and theories posited. It seems Khouri is everyone's favourite mystery, and the woman they love to hate. On the whole, this is a dynamic and surprising documentary. Every new revelation elicits another drop of the jaw — exacerbated soon after if that revelation is revealed to be another falsehood.

'Special features' on DVDs are, more often than not, merely padding to give the illusion of better value for money. In some cases, the bonus material enhances the overall package. That's the case with Forbidden Lies.

Two features are of particular interest. One is a video diary, which offers some insight into the kinds of mental and emotional somersaults Broinowski was performing during the 'quiet' moments between filming. The other is a feature-length commentary by Broinowski and Khouri. The director confronts her subject point-blank about her various 'porkies', and the subject provides an engaging, often heated and not always convincing defence. You'd think such a commentary might clarify matters — in truth, it frequently adds to the Khouri enigma.

Nonetheless, it is evident that the two women still like and infuriate each other a great deal. It's also evident that Broinowski sees the humanity in Khouri, in contrast with the media who demonised her, and that her purpose with this film was, at least in part, to pass that empathy on to a wider audience.

The great irony of the whole affair is that, in spite of Khouri's stated desire to bring attention to the subject of honour crimes, that particular and worthwhile subject has become all but obscured by her own larger-than-life persona and the scandal she initiated.

Forbidden Lies website

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim



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Existing comments

She certainly brought the matter of honour killings to the greater public. That in itself is superb. We should consider the victims - I wasn't too taken with the book but I am with the injustice to women in these societies.

Justine Walerowicz | 10 April 2008  

It's a fascinating doco - & it's just been shortlisted for the NSW Premier's Literary Awards 2008 Script Writing Award (winners announced 19 May). To read judges' comments on the script click here.

elaine lindsay | 19 April 2008  

A lot of people got steamed up about Helen Demidenko, and then Khouri.

But isn't any fiction a lie? What is the big deal about someone extended this to their own life, or passing off fiction as fact? Are George Eliot and Georges Sand liars becaused they used male pen-names?

richard | 19 June 2008  

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