I didn't get very far into Forbidden Lie$ (2007, directed by Anna Broinowski), my White Elephant movie this year, before I realized that it was totally the kind of film that the True/False Film Festival likes to schedule. Sure enough, they played it in 2008 (when I somehow missed it amid all the rest of the festival). It's the kind of film that muddies the river that divides fiction from non-fiction. It's what you get when you take the nature of truth as your subject and then cast a pathological liar in the leading role. This is an epistemological morass in which "truth" is so fungible that it doesn't have any relationship to reality whatsoever.
The subject of Forbidden Lie$ is Norma Khouri, who wrote a book about the honor killing of her best friend in Jordan. The book became a best-seller and Khouri embarked on a career as an activist for women's rights in the Middle East. Until, that is, the book was revealed as a hoax, and Khouri herself was revealed as a con artist on the run from the police in Chicago for defrauding an elderly woman of half a million dollars. The amazing thing about the movie is that Khouri herself is the star, and she weaves a tapestry of lies throughout the whole movie as she takes the filmmakers to Jordan to investigate whether or not what she wrote was true. She vows that it was, but keeps changing her story to string the filmmakers along. At some point in the middle of the movie, the filmmakers suddenly find themselves being recast as marks in a long con.
Anna Broinowski's film is a nimble visual document that pulls out the stops with recreations and representative images. The first twenty minutes of the movie take Khouri's book at face value and construct a recreation of the events of the book that look vaguely like a telenovela, complete with tragic romance and illicit interludes. The filmmakers load all of this with treacle near the end of this section of the movie, which should be a warning sign, then tear it all down with the actual facts of the case. It's an abrupt about face, but they set it up perfectly. From then on, Khouri herself spirals away from the concerned writer of the first part of the movie and into a pathological liar and con woman whose lies grow more and more baroque and more and more self-serving. It's actually kind of fascinating to watch. At some point in the movie, Khouri notes that the only English-language book she had with her when she wrote her own book was Thomas Harris's Hannibal, and I couldn't help hearing in my head that line from Harris's The Silence of the Lambs when Lecter writes to Clarice Starling that the "pattern" of the murders sounds like "the elaborations of a bad liar."
I can only speculate about Khouri's own motives for doing the film. There's some footage late in the movie that suggests that she's enjoying the game of putting one over on the filmmakers. That footage is practically the only footage in the movie in which the mask seems to be entirely absent, but there' no way to know it. How did the filmmakers get that footage? If it came from Khouri herself, there's no way to trust it. The other commenters in the film think that nothing about Khouri can be trusted, whether it's the FBI, the various journalists, Khouri's friends, even her own husband. The polygraph analyst near the end of the film claims that there is no Norma Khouri. That it's all lies. And yet, there Khouri is telling more lies even though she knows that her credibility is completely shot. When, late in the film, Khouri provides an arrest record indicating that her own father was serially abusing her as a child, one has to wonder if this is a justification for her behavior or a result of it. By the time this is produced for the cameras, there's absolutely no way to know. Late in the movie, the filmmakers provide a summary of their own movie in a single shot, in which Khouri is surrounded by reflections of herself in a room full of mirrors. There's a serious level of narcissism involved here.
On a meta level, this is an ideal film to demonstrate the existential crisis of contemporary documentaries: even the most scrupulous documentary doesn't--can't--know that what it's showing to an audience is objectively true in all respects. There's ALWAYS a manipulation or omission somewhere along the line. This is doubly true of the recent breed of documentary essays, because these films have a point of view. Forbidden Lie$ takes all of this as a given. It certainly provides the viewer with enough information to make their own judgements on what they've seen, but it also provides a dump truck full of salt to go with it.
*from Starstruck, a graphic novel by Elaine Lee and Michael Wm. Kaluta, in case you were wondering.