Forbidden Lie$ is a documentary that will make you squirm in frustration. The film tracks Norma Khouri through the publication of her best-selling memoir, Forbidden Love, which lampoons the Jordanian government for its allowance of honor killings. The film then follows her, while a journalist named Malcolm Knox uncovers the lies inside her book: the story she tells of her friend Dalia's murder seems never to have took place; Norma is not who she says she is; the FBI might be after her; her husband might be in the mafia; she may be one of the biggest con-artists of the century. Filmmaker Anna Broinowski dares us to try and unravel the mystery of Norma Khouri.
The aura of the film recalls Orson Welles’ pledge at the beginning of F For Fake: “Almost any story is almost certainly some kind of lie. But not this time. This is a promise. For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact.” Seventy-seven minutes later, he reminds us, “That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the last seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.”
Indeed, it’s hard to believe Khouri, despite her conviction and desperation. But it makes us wonder who would go to such lengths for a lie. She makes it hard to believe both our own eyes and her skeptics, calling into question the lies of the filmmaker. We begin to realize, as Godard said, “Every edit is a lie.” She asks us to imagine what is happening between takes. The tragedy of her life and the disbelief she conjures in those who surround her (or, depending who you believe, her extreme, unrepentant lies) makes us wonder whether we should trust journalist Knox or the cops (who are hunting her out on numerous charges of fraud) or Khouri. Doesn’t Knox stand to gain much by writing an article that uncovers the lies in a bestseller, and don’t the police benefit from closing a case that had gone cold? Doesn’t everyone have a motivation to conceal the truth?
This is the great art of Norma Khouri, and it turns the film into a mess, a great, beautiful mess. It plays out more like a thriller than a documentary -- part Errol Morris re-enactment, part personal story, part investigative journalism. It’s hard to try and find the pigeonhole for this film, because it dabbles in so many different styles and is so far from the standard documentary it deserves a shelf of its own.
It is possible that a different filmmaker might have given us more resolution. But easy answers wouldn’t be worth our time. Here, we’re left with the tangled knot that has been tugged throughout the film. It’s as though Broinowski throws her hands up in the air and leaves us, saying, "I give up! You try and figure this out." If we are to believe that Broinowski is being honest, then she has done the right thing by presenting the madness of this story and then leaving it, unresolved, in our hands. What results is not a desire to know what Khouri lied about -- whether her husband was a mobster or her father abused her -- we just end up wanting to delve deeper into the instruments of the lie, the psychology of the lie. Journalism, filmmaking, novels -- they are all different forms of lying, but all in an effort to inch closer to the truth.