Editorial note: this essay was originally published in July of 2011. We are sharing it again following Forbidden Lie$ screening in our retrospective series DocuMemories.
Even before I began working with the festival in any official capacity, I’d spent an undue amount of time pondering the meaning of the name David and Paul chose for it. True/False. Did they intend to ironically posit the existence of a dichotomy between the two concepts? Or is that little slash in-between indicative of their belief that something can be at once true and false: a representation of reality in search of some transcendent truth but nevertheless constructed, constrained by subjectivity, compromised? To what do documentary filmmakers possess the greatest responsibility: to the facts of the case (the truth) or to some abstract bigger picture (the Truth)? All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, at the outset of this new project, I’d like to take the opportunity to discuss what I consider the quintessential True/False film — if not its best (obviously, it has a lot of competition for that slot), at least the fullest embodiment of its thematic concerns.
Anna Broinowski’s Forbidden Lie$ is a film whose pleasures are best experienced knowing as little as possible about what’s in store, so consider this a warning to get out while you still can. Lie$ focuses on Norma Khouri, a 34-year-old Jordanian hair-stylist-cum-author with an accentless facility with English and devastatingly tragic story: Her childhood friend Dalia, with whom she ran a small unisex salon, was killed by her own father in order to preserve her honor after she initiated a relationship with a Christian man. Her friend’s terrible fate led Khouri to become a dedicated opponent of the Islamic practice of honor killings, and Lie$ initially celebrates her activism — even going to the trouble of re-enacting excerpts of Dalia’s romantic (but still entirely chaste) dalliances as depicted in Khouri’s subsequent memoir, Forbidden Love (or Honor Lost, in the States).
The film’s first half hour is an unremitting hagiography of Khouri, depicted herein as somebody approaching martyr status. It highlights her sacrifices for her noble cause; her daring stand against violent religious fundamentalism has not only resulted in threats against her life (she claims a fatwa on her head) but has also prevented her from focusing on herself (at 34 years, still a virgin!). This all culminates in a playacted montage of Dalia’s fatal tryst, accompanied by a truly terrible pop song celebrating the couple’s love. This scene, completely bewildering in its apparent tone-deaf romanticism, is the point at which I seriously contemplated abandoning the theatre during my first viewing. But then something utterly remarkable happens: The music video abruptly ends with a screech, the fake Dalia melts into sand, and the film cedes ground to Jordanian journalist and activist Rana Husseini, who systematically refutes and dismantles the claims of Forbidden Love one by one. And this is when we realize we’ve been set up, borne witness to a spectacular feat of misdirection.
As Khouri’s story begins to fall apart (and, despite Khouri’s best efforts, it begins to fly apart at the seams), it’s useful to self-reflexively examine your own reactions to this first part. In granting so much time to recreations of events that probably never happened and certainly didn’t happen as Khouri wrote they did, Broinowski implicitly acknowledges the primacy of illusion: To what extent is how we define things as “true” a product of what we visually perceive? To have Khouri narrate the story might leave a lingering doubt; to provide a visual approximation of her story erases it, so great is the privilege granted the image in the mind. I was so repulsed by the film’s lovey-dovey romanticization of Muslim-Christian miscegenation (replete with soft focus and dissolve editing) that it never even occurred to me that the entire affair might not have existed at all. In undermining her own dramatizations, Broinowski undermines the inviolable sanctimony of the image in general.
Similarly, Forbidden Lie$ invites troubling questions about the extent to which we accept narratives because they conform to our own political ideologies. Was Khouri’s story received so widely and with such scant skepticism in Western countries due to its depiction of Islamic society as ruled by oppressive moral absolutism and a violence-sanctioning patriarchy? The opening minutes of Lie$ sees Khouri making jokes about media censorship within Jordan — and it sees Western, predominantly white audiences eating her performance up. Khouri’s incessant claim that honor killings occur unnoticed within Jordanian society could be facially rejected with just the barest amount of research, and yet her stories undoubtedly resonate with Western audiences. It slowly becomes apparent that, by offering a fictionalized Jordanian society as a foil, Khouri reflects back at us the values we wish to project: freedom, justice, tolerance.
Near the beginning of F for Fake, Orson Welles pledges that “For the next hour, everything you hear from us is really true and based on solid fact” — and he begins lying through his teeth the moment the hour’s over. The point? The act of telling the truth is inextricable from the act of drawing lines, definitions of situations. And this is what makes Norma Khouri such a compelling figure as well; she has an uncanny ability to wriggle out of the most blatant prevarication, mostly because she knows precisely where the line is at all times. Rather than spewing outright lies, she allows people to make assumptions and clears the air only when her façade is in danger of utter collapse. Over the course of the film, untold damaging details come to light: She’s a U.S. citizen, she’s married with kids, she’s under investigation by the FBI — and, incredibly, nothing seems to stick.
The scary part? Khouri’s complicity throughout the whole thing. Even with Khouri almost definitively outed as a fraud, one gets the impression that she remains in sole charge of her story, that we’re still only seeing what she wants us to see. I mean, Norma’s seen blowing smoke against a black screen between the film’s chapters, and she’s far too shrewd a wit not to realize that potency of that visual metaphor. “There is no real Norma,” says a lie-detector expert at one point during the film. True to that sentiment, we cannot by film’s end say that we have a better grasp of just who Norma Khouri is than we did at the beginning; our search for truth ended the moment of its inception, and we’re left with these small, flawed pieces that, if we try to gather them, flow from our fingers like the sands of Jordan. In the end, Forbidden Lie$ represents an elegant synthesis of form and content: If Khouri is a con artist, we could very well say the same thing of her movie.