On a hill high atop the streets of Amman, a woman and her boyfriend steal a few moments together in a cafe. She should not be there, nor should he. But it is Friday; her father and brothers are at prayer and her female relatives have engineered a fail-safe rendezvous.
Despite all precautions, a glitch occurs. The affair is discovered. Family honour is tainted: she is Muslim, he is Christian, and in her strict household, no such match is allowed. And so, one night as she sleeps, the woman known as Dalia is killed by her male relatives, victim to an ancient code of honour that still lies at the heart of Jordanian culture. At least, that's what Norma Khouri would have you believe. The Jordanian-born author claims this as her basis for her 2003 memoir Forbidden Love (Honor Lost in the US). Written in the first person, the book describes a patriarchal Middle Eastern society in which honour killing is a part of life. The book became an international best-seller and was published in 18 languages. It became one of the most talked-about books to emerge after September 11.
But, proving the adage that real life is often stranger than fiction, Khouri was outed a year after the book's publication as a con woman who had fabricated the entire tale. The author (real name Norma Bagain Toliopoulos) is in fact a Chicago-based estate agent and a married mother of two who is under FBI investigation for fraud. Forbidden Love, according to her accusers, is just the latest manifestation of her trickery.
The desire to reconcile these two narratives forms the plot of Forbidden Lie$, Anna Broinowski's surreal documentary about the book and its author. Broinowski, like so many other readers in the West who embraced Khouri's dark tale as one more example of Middle Eastern backwardness, begins the documentary as a way to prove the author right. The film initially follows Khouri's tragic retelling of her friend's story, with flashbacks that reveal Khouri and Dalia's childhood, Dalia's innocent romance and her murder. Broinowski lays on the melodrama with stirring music, golden hues and Khouri's emotional (albeit nasal) voice-over.
Then reality intrudes. We meet Rana Husseini, a reporter in Jordan who accuses Khouri of lying. An investigative journalist who specialises in honour killings, Husseini proceeds to discredit statements made by Khouri in the book. The dates are wrong; places don't exist; the names of people are proven false; the number of honour killings is significantly less than what Khouri claims. A chorus of critics chimes in, including Malcolm Knox and Caroline Overington, the two journalists from The Sydney Morning Herald who first broke the story of Khouri's hoax in 2004 while she was living in Australia.
Broinowski pairs their criticism with elements of magical realism that make the narrative visually appealing and easy to follow. Using rewinds, alternate scenes and literal smoke and mirrors, Broinowski highlights the elements of absurdity and humour that define much of Khouri's tale. Despite the heavy subject matter, the director makes the film digestible with morsels of visual artistry that satisfy the need for continuity and narrative. From the dead body that doesn't exist to the movie's final scene, each element of the story is woven into a complex tapestry that is meant to be unravelled.
Throughout the film, it feels as though we are being subjected to some overarching sleight of hand that is meant to reflect Broinowski's experience as she works to first exonerate and then implicate Khouri. She even accompanies Khouri back to Jordan in an effort to clear her name, which proves difficult when the author refuses to reveal the real identity of Dalia and sends the crew on a wild goose chase for someone who doesn't exist - or does she? "Didn't I tell you from the beginning? I'll never tell you who she really is," Khouri says, looking straight into the camera.
Eventually, a picture emerges of Khouri that is not very comforting: a frighteningly intelligent woman who seeks the thrill of the con with all the vim of an adrenalin junkie. Past financial frauds surface; allegations of a manipulative husband and an abusive father emerge. In an interview with an Australian radio station, Broinowski recalls the words of the police officer who administers a polygraph test to Khouri in the film. "He came up to me and said: 'She's bad news, and I'm quite worried about you. If you're going to travel with her don't stay with her. She's on the con - I've been doing this a long time and she's very, very bad news.' And that was a spine-chilling moment."