In 2002, Norma Khouri penned the Jordanian memoir “Forbidden Love” (aka “Honor Lost”), recounting the tragic tale of her friend Dahlia, who was murdered by her brother in 1996 under the guise of an “honor killing,” after her illicit affair with a soldier. Published around the world, the book was an immediate smash, sending Khouri on a media appearance tour where she recounted her life after the devastating murder and touted her quest to spotlight Middle Eastern violence against women. Khouri became something of a superhero to the public, finding fame, fortune, and the attention of millions as she carefully rode the wave of success.
And then people started researching the book’s events.
“Forbidden Lies” is a blistering Australian documentary from director Anna Broinowski that probes Khouri’s story with hope to uncover the truth behind various accusations of fraud that popped up after the book’s publication. What I presume started as a simple concerto of explanation from Khouri to silence her detractors (shot with an overabundance of Errol Morris-inspired stylistic choices) became something more in a hurry, as Broinowsky began to peel back the layers of the author’s lies and crafty misdirection to find that almost nothing written in “Forbidden Love” was based in fact.
The crux of the documentary is Khouri’s participation, sitting down for interviews with the filmmaker to describe her experience with “Forbidden Love” and the fallout that destroyed her writing career. It would be spoiling the picture’s many fantastic surprises to fully explore Khouri’s dynamic pathology, but her caustic, backpedaling personality is a cinematic gift that Broinowski unwraps gently. Khouri, even in the face of hilariously damning evidence against her, stands tall in front of the camera, openly changing her story and playing mind games to reclaim the upper hand. She’s a riveting persona to watch, especially when backed into a corner in a smooth-talking huckster style recently dramatized in the Lasse Hallstrom picture, “The Hoax,” that showcased fellow publishing world deceiver, Clifford Irving.
Taking the story all over the globe, Broinowsky doesn’t immediately damn Khouri. In fact, the filmmaker appears to side with the author in the early going, desperate to find any scrap of accuracy to salvage the book’s tarnished reputation. Interviewing Jordanian medical experts, FBI agents, Khouri’s estranged husband, and morally iffy Australian journalist Malcolm Knox (the man credited with sniffing out Khouri’s deception), the documentary builds an amazing case against the book, eventually turning against Khouri in the final act, where her troublemaking past comes to light. Broinowsky eventually becomes a character in her own film, finding Khouri’s dishonesty too much to swallow as she frantically attempts to reason with the mentally disturbed writer when distanced observation fails.
To her credit, Khouri weaves a compelling story even if she can’t back up her facts with evidence. She claims the book to be a work of “faction” (fiction and fact), hiding behind a cloud of cigarette smoke and rehearsed responses. Her transparency is stunning and so is this flashy documentary, delivering an astounding, enraging story of literary deception and moral bankruptcy that’s thrilling to watch.