Forbidden Lie$

Forbidden Lie$


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Norma Khouri’s story had all the ingredients of a bestseller: a Christian girl growing up in the Jordanian capital Amman becomes best friends with a Muslim neighbour called Dalia. But when Dalia is killed by her own father for the ‘crime’ of falling in love with a Christian, Norma is forced to flee.

Working from an internet cafe in Greece, Norma writes a book about her experiences and it is snapped up by publishers. It becomes a worldwide hit and she tours the festival circuit, speaking passionately about her own story and the need to alert the world to the problem of honour killings in the Muslim world, before making a new life in Australia.

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Like all the best stories, it has conflict, romance, triumph over adversity and a happy ending. Except that that’s all it was – a story. Anna Broinowski’s fascinating documentary takes a close look at one of the great literary hoaxes of recent years and raises some interesting questions about public perceptions of Middle Eastern life, as well as offering a personal portrait of a woman whose real story is even more compelling than her fictional one.

It begins by retelling Norma’s story straight, complete with the kind of corny ‘dramatic reconstructions’ (featuring Mutwai as Dalia) common to all low budget ‘true life tragedy’ docs. You do find yourself feeling pity and sympathy for Dalia and her doomed romance, and for Norma as she tells her highly-charged tale to sympathetic journos and festival audiences, coming across as a shy, modest and rather bookish type.

It’s easy to see why readers took her to their hearts, some even writing songs ‘To Dalia’ and helping Norma settle in Australia. It’s not until the film is well under way that the rug is pulled from under the viewer’s feet – and how.

From the moment of publication, journalists and women’s rights campaigners in Jordan and throughout the Middle East had been bombarding the publishers with evidence of glaring factual errors in the book. Many of the Australian reporters who had feted her a few months previously began digging into her past (particularly Malcolm Knox of the Sydney Morning Herald) and found a very different Norma to the one who had won so many hearts.

Although she was born in Jordan, her family left there when she was three and, apart from a brief visit in 200, she had not returned since. For most of her life, she had lived in Chicago, where she married a Greek American named John Toliopoulos and had two children. The family emigrated to Australia in 2001, leaving behind a history of domestic violence, dodgy real estate deals, fraud allegations and an FBI file as long as your arm.

Faced with all this, plus compelling evidence that she had not lived in Jordan at the time, that no one in Amman remembered her or Dalia and that there was no record of Dalia’s death or her father’s conviction, Norma began to backtrack, using the time-honoured defences of ‘artistic licence’ and ‘names changed to protect the innocent’.

But even as the allegations continued and new details emerged almost daily of her murky and chaotic past life she continued to maintain that Dalia did exist and that her only motive had been to highlight the honour killings issue.

Perhaps she thought that allowing Broinowski full access to her would be a chance to give her side of the story. But instead she is presented with damning indictments by – well, just about everybody. Undeterred, she agrees to visit Jordan with the film crew, and show them concrete evidence of the truth of her story...

It’s a tangled tale, and Broinowski sometimes uses a few too many Michael Moore-style tactics (faux surprise, superimposed footage from old movies) which simply distract from the documentary’s main thrust. They also fuel Norma’s argument that her critics are just as economical with the actualite in their allegations (that’s if they’re not all secretly working for the Jordanian government, of course) – though Norma’s description of Malcolm Knox as being motivated “just by ego and a desire for fame” is chutzpah of a truly Olympic standard.

The film is full of moments like this and with a bit more focus on the wider issues raised by Norma’s story – as well as feeding lurid western stereotypes of the Islamic ‘other’ it also seemed to me to be an early example of ‘victim lit’, with its similarly troubling willingness to accept ‘harrowing true life stories’ at face value – it could have been one of the great documentaries.

But it’s still a terrific tale; you may well find yourself rooting for Norma in the early scenes, too, and even as all her evasions and half-truths are exposed it’s possible to question whether she is just a pathological liar and manipulator, or a very damaged woman who wanted to write her way out of a dreadful life and didn’t understand the difference between fact, fiction and ‘faction’. In the end, we’ve probably all wished that our lives made a better story than the boring, messy truth.

But, as the film makes clear, in pretending that hers actually did Norma Khouri did more harm than good in the fight against a genuine problem – and hurt a lot of people who truly believed in her.

Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2008
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A harrowing ‘true-life’ story about an honour killing in Jordan becomes a publishing sensation. But the author is not all that she seems. Touring.

Director: Anna Broinowski

Writer: Anna Broinowski

Starring: Norma Khouri, Linda Mutawi, Malcolm Knox, John Toliopoulos

Year: 2007

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: Australia


Australia 2008

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