Anna Broinowski’s Forbidden Lie$ begins by intercutting footage of author Norma Khouri discussing her 2003 bestseller Honor Lost—a purported true-life account of the honor-killing death of her friend in Amman, Jordan—with middling dramatic reenactments of the book’s tale that prove grating until it becomes clear that their inclusion speaks directly to the phoniness of Khouri’s tome. Her supposedly nonfiction saga, and specifically its argument that her friend’s tragic life was no different than any other Jordanian woman’s, strongly resonated upon its publication on the eve of the Iraq War, turning Khouri into a minor celebrity crusader willing to speak the unpopular truth about Muslim culture. The problem, however, was that Honor Lost was an almost complete fake, first drawing the suspicions of Jordanian female-rights advocates, who noted mistakes with regard to its depiction of female life in their country as well as factual geographic and chronological errors, and afterward by Australian journalist Malcolm Knox, who exposed Khouri as a fraud motivated by a desire for money and fame.
Writer-director Broinowski’s foremost achievement was convincing the discredited author to sit down and defend herself on camera, which she does with a vehemence and certitude that’s counterbalanced by the raft of opposing voices who lay out not only the implausibility of her book, but the strange, sordid story of her life as someone under F.B.I. investigation for being an old lady-swindling grifter married to a possible Greek mafioso. Broinowski’s portrait soon becomes an investigation into the veracity of Khouri’s continuing claims, and eventually leads to Amman, where filmmaker and subject engage in a sort of fact-finding duel, with the director striving to acquire concrete evidence and Khouri rewriting history and her own words, spinning new yarns and concocting semi-truths, to keep the lie alive.
Forbidden Lie$‘s expressionistic tendencies—green-screen backdrops, self-consciously arranged compositions and juxtapositions, an all-white set in which speakers listen and respond to others’ comments—eventually come off as needless ornamentation. Still, its central tug-of-war provides a stunning up-close glimpse of a con artist’s psychotic—delusional, egomaniacal, unhinged, needy—psychology, as well as encapsulates the documentarian/reporter’s inherent struggle to parse fact and fiction.