Forbidden Lie$

"Very Good"

Forbidden Lie$ Review


Anna Broinowski's Forbidden Lie$ is the nervy documentary accounting of how Norma Khouri, a Jordan-born Chicago scam artist (real name Bagain) with possible ties to organized crime and who was wanted for fraud by the FBI, passed herself off as a sheltered Jordanian virgin on the run from religious extremists looking to shut her up for criticizing their actions. It begins in mock-breathless gravitas, showcasing the wavery-voiced but proud Khouri talking passionately about her 2002 nonfiction international bestseller Forbidden Love (a dramatic story of how a Jordanian friend was murdered by her family in an honor killing brought about by her secret romance with a Christian), and pumping her up as a feminist hero for the new millennium.

The artifice is almost a little too easy to spot, with Broinowski continually breaking the fourth wall and coming at her subject in elliptical jabs; the heroic and postmodern styles don't easily mesh. So when the film brings the hammer of reality down -- this woman is a liar -- audiences will have already begun to suspect as much. If that was all the film had to offer, it would be a one-act piece. But Khouri is a consummate professional, and she won't go down without a fight.

The basics of the case are fascinating enough in their own right. Forbidden Love claimed to be an absolutely true account of how Khouri and her childhood best-friend Dalia in 1990 opened a revolutionary unisex salon in Jordan -- described as a place of ironclad gender divisions, where women are never allowed to walk around without a male escort or uncovered faces -- which is where Dalia met the Christian soldier she would fall in love with. Several years later, according to Love, Dalia's strict father murdered her for supposedly shaming the family and was never punished for it. Khouri escaped to Athens and later Australia, where she wrote her popular book, a portion of the proceeds of which she promised to give to charities fighting the practice of honor killings.

It was only in 2004 that journalists began to uncover the real Khouri; these days her book is classified as fiction and those charities are still waiting to see their money. Broinowski's film not only peels back the layers of truth about Khouri's grotty past -- the old lady who died in a hospital after Khouri allegedly stole her life savings, for instance, or the fact that there never was a Dalia -- but also tracks the scammer herself, who resolutely refuses to give up the whole truth. Even years after her cover has been blown, Khouri continues to claim that some of her story was true, even leading Broinowski's crew on a brazenly fake wild-goose chase to Jordan. As the film demolishes one piece of Khouri's fiction after another, the truth turns into an infinitely receding hall of mirrors that evokes Orson Welles' meta-truthful F for Fake and Malik Bader's 2006 faker Street Thief. The same goes for Khouri herself, a lifelong con who may have started to believe her own fictions; as one interviewee says near the end, "there is no Norma."

When Khouri's book first started appearing in multiple international editions in 2002 and 2003, it was a fast bestseller, regardless of its countless basic errors (claiming Jordan is bordered by Kuwait, for instance). One of Khouri's more outspoken critics in the film (there are plenty) makes the point that it was a fertile time for books demonizing patriarchal attitudes in the Middle East. What a larger chorus of interviewees say is that the practice of honor killing is indeed a vile occurrence in places like Jordan, and when opportunists like Khouri make themselves rich off trumped-up fictions about them, it's in effect like crying wolf. She may have no regrets about the wrecked lives she's left behind, but audiences certainly will; for all her charm and skill, it's hard not to feel by the end of this film that one is looking into the giggling face of evil.

Somewhere, though, David Mamet, that lover of cons, is watching this woman -- Chicago-reared and feral -- and taking reams of notes. There's another movie in this.

Aka Forbidden Lies.

Forbidden chess.



Forbidden Lie$

Facts and Figures

Run time: 104 mins

In Theaters: Friday 3rd April 2009

Distributed by: Roxie Releasing

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 30 Rotten: 4

IMDB: 7.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director: Anna Broinowski

Producer: Sally Regan, Anna Broinowski

Starring: Norma Khouri as Herself, Malcolm Knox as Himself, Rana Husseini as Herself

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