“I had a difficult childhood,” says Norma Khouri at the start of Forbidden Lie$. She grew up in Jordan, where her father was difficult and her movements were limited, specifically because she is female. Still, she continues, her troubles were minor compared to those endured by her best friend, who was murdered by her father and brothers.
Khouri’s story—or, as she insists, Dalia’s story—needs to be out, to be told and retold, in order that the Jordanian government and conservative segments of the population are moved to change. Her determination to bring on this change, to shame authorities who condone honor killing, to agitate against traditionalist oppressions, and to ignite the outrage of the world, has brought Khouri to a particular place, she insists. This place is not altogether clear—in her mind or in Anna Broinowski’s complicated, troubling, and fascinating documentary.
At first, Forbidden Lie$ appears unremarkable. Though Khouri’s report is surely horrific, the arc is predictable and the images are more or less standard.Khouri’s memories of her years in Amman, where she and Dalia opened N&D’s Unisex Beauty Salon (“One of Amman’s few salons owned and operated by women that served a mixed clientele,” she reports). Here Dalia, a Muslim, fell in love with a client, a Christian soldier named Michael. Their love affair blossomed, Khouri remembers, with the help of friends who “invented a series of covert operations that would allow Michael and Dalia to date.” Though they never had sex, they were committed to one another, and this, Dalia’s male relatives could not abide. One night they descended upon her with knives—this being the weapon of choice in such circumstances—and cleansed the family’s honor.
Khouri was so horrified by this event—as well as the fact that the murderers served essentially no jail time—that she left Jordan and began to write down the saga. “I wanted the whole world to know she was murdered,” Khouri explains, “I wanted the whole world to know what an injustice the whole thing was.” The result, a book titled Forbidden Love, was published by Random House and became a sensation in the months following 9/11, landing Khouri on talk shows and before crowds at book stores. Described as a virgin “married to the cause”, Khouri was, as one journalist puts it, “like a rock star. If there had been music, we would have had a mosh pit.” Khouri, fearing for her own life—a fatwa had reportedly been issued—moved to Bribie Island in Queensland. Here she met Rachel Richardson, a neighbor whose stepson had recently been charged with murder. The women were instantly close, Rachel recalls: “I worshipped the ground she bloody walks on.”
But as Khouri’s story seems on track to a more or less regular ending—publicity yielding appropriate public and official outrage, Khouri’s status as valiant truth teller affirmed—Forbidden Lie$ more or less screeches to a halt in order to introduce Rana Husseini. A journalist who has worked for years at the Jordan Times, Husseini looks into the camera and announces, ” This book is not the truth.”
A scandal arose in the wake of this and similar assertions as multiple readers found factual errors in Khouri’s book (the film lists some of these, including wrong locations and dates; one doctor at the hospital where Dalia’s body was reportedly delivered asserts, with camera in tow under fluorescent tubes: “We don’t have any dimly it hallways!”). These led to broader doubts concerning Dalia’s murder, even her existence. Khouri protested that her story was essentially true, that she had changed names and time and places in order to protect people—including it turns out, her personal status. Now she explains her deception as critical to the “campaign”, as she calls it, to end honor killing. She had to defend her two young children and husband, John Toliopoulos, from revenge plots against her. By 2004, Australian investigative journalist Malcolm Knox had exposed the book as a hoax, reporting that not only was she not precisely who she said she was, but also that Khouri was a con artist wanted by the FBI.
The film structures its own investigation as a kind of back-and-forth debate, with Khouri or her husband watching footage of someone else making claims on a laptop Broinowski provides. Likewise, the film gives time to Knox or others who felt scammed by Khouri, including author David Leser (“It was an Oscar-winning performance”), her neighbor Rachel (“At the end of the day my focus was on those two innocent children”), and her publicists and agent. As Khouri protests her innocence, the film illustrates—again by polished, compelling reenactments—effects on her children (they sit with backs to the camera, watching the scandal unfold on television), as well as the apparent lies in the book. One especially striking scene has Dalia’s brutal knifing—repeated more than once in the film—revealed as a performance, and then rewound as such, with the actress and her attackers laughing as she climbs up from her bed covered in blood-red liquid yuck.
As these unusual images appear, it becomes clear that the film’s more conventional images are also up for challenges. The interviews, the documents highlighted, the archival footage or photos of a particular time and place—none of these can be assumed to be true. Khouri insists that her fundamental story is true, that women are in fact murdered and that the practice of honor killing, and the cultural and political contexts that allow it, must end. Whether this truth—and there are disputes here as to numbers and pervasiveness, though as Khouri points out, even one is too many—overrides the deceptions that made the story known worldwide, is not explicitly the film’s interest.
Rather, Forbidden Lie$ takes apart the publishing and entertainment industry that pounced on and exploited Khouri’s story, the racism and misogyny that propel violent customs and fictions, and especially, the desire to believe in truths that fulfill expectations. As the film ends, and Khouri, the camera crew, and Broinowski leave the set of their last interview, the apparatus of this film itself seems exposed. It is left to you to decide where any kind of truth might be found.