You might remember one of the most outrageous (and let’s be honest, totally juicy) literary hoaxes of recent times. Norma Khouri, con artist and, quite possibly, sociopath, was exposed as a “fake” in a Sydney Morning Herald series by journalists Malcolm Knox and Caroline Overington in 2004.
The scandal? Khouri claimed she was escaping danger in her homeland of Jordan after her best friend and business partner, Dalia, a Muslim (Khouri is Christian), was the victim of an honour killing. Her wildly successful “memoir”, Forbidden Love, detailed Dalia’s alleged romance with a Christian man. It was published as non-fiction — a tad inconvenient for her publisher because the book was all a lie. Khouri was in fact a US resident, a wife and mother of two, and apparently under investigation by the FBI for fraud.
Enter Australian documentary-maker Anna Broinowski (she won an AFI for her documentary, Helen’s War). She confesses that she was quickly won over by Khouri’s charm when she met her. Convinced that Khouri was the victim of a media witch hunt, she set out to make a documentary that would prove the veracity of Khouri’s claims that Forbidden Love was not fiction.
The result is Forbidden Lie$, a highly engrossing, humorous and almost whimsical look at the scandal and those affected by it. This is not a film about honour killings. They are discussed, realistically and passionately, and we see that those working hard to eliminate the practice are but one casualty in this affair. But ultimately, this is the story of a con and its perpetrator.
In her search for the truth, Broinowski ventures to Amman with Khouri (and someone Khouri alleged was a “bodyguard”). Hoping to retrace the events, instead the documentary-maker is sent on one wild goose chase after another. Broinowski’s frustration is clear soon enough – but she’s equal parts exasperated and intrigued by her subject.
This is one aspect that is difficult to understand, although it’s no less intriguing. Perhaps you need to be face-to-face with Khouri to “get it” – to understand how she has gotten away with so much, and why so many people were so quick to believe in her and her story. Because really, arguably quite ordinary in looks and speech, Khouri’s not your standard femme fatale. But I suppose you can forget quite quickly that this isn’t Hollywood. It’s just an outrageous story spun by an experienced, deeply troubled con artist.
There are a number of voices in this film, allowing room for several perspectives on this increasingly bewildering journey. There’s Khouri’s rather unnerving (and estranged) Greek husband, who speaks with an accent, in husky tones — think Sopranos. Actually, scratch that. Think mafia spoof.
We also meet her one-time neighbour in Queensland’s Bribie Island (where Khouri sought ‘refuge’ following publication of the book). She took care of Khouri’s children when Khouri fled Australia after the scandal broke. Three months later, she had to send them to the US embassy, unable to cope with the financial burden it was placing upon her. Now, she says, she’s broke and still waiting for money Khouri owes her.
Add to this the journalists who broke the story, as well as the doctors, journalist and activists Broinowski speaks to in Jordan. They’re well-spoken, intelligent and funny – and they’re deeply offended by the factual inaccuracies littered throughout Forbidden Love, providing Broinowski with some priceless moments.
Broinowski has found interesting ways to tell the story too. For example, when dramatically recreating Dalia’s romance with her Christian boyfriend, Michael, the scenes are reminiscent of cheesy, B-grade soap operas – a reflection of Khouri’s hackneyed storytelling.
This is a deeply thought-provoking, frustrating and fascinating look at a hoax and its aftermath. The tagline reads “Con or artist? You decide”. I don’t think the answer to that is terribly difficult to find. The trick to this film is trying to decipher what truth, if any, exists beneath the lies.