Smart, cunning and more than a little devious, Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski has provided a welcome reminder that every story is constructed, even those that purport to be distanced and (dare I say it) objective. Her splendid documentary, Forbidden Lie$, is the antithesis of a straightforward, just-the-facts-ma'am saga. It is, instead, a witty transformation of her toe-to-toe face-off with discredited author Norma Khouri (Forbidden Love) into an elliptical, entertaining exploration of the flexibility and fungibility of the truth.
Forbidden Lie$ is the unusual documentary that constantly shifts tones and genres, gliding from investigative journalism to empathetic character study to grimy tabloid trash to grown-up Nancy Drew travelogue. This is, first and foremost, a brilliant strategy for reflecting and keeping up with a master dissembler who herself changes costumes and personae with the panache of a Broadway actress. But it also provides a nifty means of calling into question the nature and ethics of documentary filmmaking, and our often-unblinking acceptance of the form.
Most people, frankly, will be drawn to Forbidden Lie$ for the built-in drama and train-wreck sensationalism of its subject matter. In 2001, Random House published the memoir of a Jordanian Catholic expatriate named Norma Khouri that described the horrific death of her Muslim best friend on the outskirts of Amman. Dalia had fallen in love with a Christian, and her brothers and father murdered her when they found out. This kind of "honor killing," Khouri wrote, was pervasive in Jordan.
In the wake of 9/11, with people in the West suddenly eager to learn about the human face of Islam, the book became a minor sensation. It was translated into numerous languages, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and propelled Khouri onto bestseller lists and TV shows. But in 2004, an Australian journalist dug up the revelation that Khouri was not a brave, charming virgin (as she claimed) but a married mother of two whom the Chicago FBI was investigating on fraud charges.
The question of Khouri's honesty and the veracity of her account is always front and center in Forbidden Lie$, inevitably turning us into active viewers. It's no wonder that this was one of the most talked-about movies at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, for we eagerly adopt the role of judge and jury, weighing every new bit of testimony (and the trustworthiness of the source). A few examples from a lengthy list: a retired Manhattan detective hooks Khouri up to a lie-detector machine with mixed results, a veteran Jordanian activist recites a long and amusing litany of factual errors and time-line goofs in the book, a next-door neighbor describes her unreimbursed costs for caring for Khouri's children after the writer fled Australia.
Khouri's ever-shifting side of the story adds up to one main argument: "I may have changed a detail here or there, but the big picture remains the same. Honor killings occur by the boatload in Jordan, and the laws and traditions need to be changed." Do Khouri's ends justify her means? Conversely, is a larger crime being ignored by journalists and filmmakers too busy seeking the truth about her personal story? The film is quite content to toss those questions in the audience's lap, and continue merrily chugging along.
Moviegoers who enjoy grappling with issues such as the filmmaker's responsibility to his or her audience, or the idea that every documentary is a work of construction (as opposed to an undeniable truth handed down from above), will derive even more pleasure from Forbidden Lie$. Broinowski tosses in sound effects to remind us that we're watching a film (a representation of reality, that is, not reality itself), and shows us the set where she interviews Khouri.
Is the filmmaker being exceptionally honest, or just coy? Are we closer to the truth -- that elusive Holy Grail -- than when we started? Or have we been conned by Anna Broinowski, not unlike the way Norma Khouri (may have) conned Random House and a multitude of readers? The filmmaker, rather bravely, is quite content to send us home with a fresh-baked batch of unanswered questions to chew on.
Forbidden Lie$ opens September 19, 2008 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For more information, visit roxie.com.