The story was published in 2003, it immediately became an international bestseller showered with praise by the press and women’s activists, and sold over half a million copies in fifteen countries. At the time, the Western world, still in shock from 9/11, was preparing to send troops to fight the common enemy, Arab terrorists. But then, a year later, an Australian journalist blew her story of the Jordanian Catholic virgin on-the-run from bloodthirsty Muslims, and, documents at hand proved that “Forbidden Love” was sheer fiction, written by a fugitive not from Jordan but from a life of financial scams and violent family relations, who had lived in Chicago since the age of three, but left in 1999 with the FBI hot on her trail, accusing her of fraud.
When Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski got wind of the story, she was convinced that the whole thing was a kind of witch-hunt made up by male journalists. “I met her in San Francisco and fell immediately under her spell. When I looked at her I thought, ‘You’re a nice person, modest, beautiful,’ and felt at a gut level the person behind these eyes cannot not lie.”
Today, two years after she made the film and furious about being conned too, Broinowski still doesn’t know what to think of Norma, whether she is “a narcissistic sociopath or a severely damaged person who craves attention and doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies. Or just a very good actor.”
In “Forbidden Lie$”, traversing the literary salons of London, the vistas of Jordan, where Norma was giving Broinowski the run around, Australian suburbs and the seamy Chicago backstreets of Norma’s dubious past, the filmmaker tries to compare Norma’s tale with the stories of those she conned. But each time a lie becomes obvious, Norma comes up with a new “truth”, entangling Broinowski in a new web of stories.
This is what finally makes this documentary so compelling, however, since beyond the apparently impossible mission of gathering proof for Norma’s fictitious life (the filmmaker’s original goal), her film is also a passionate encounter of two women and their ambiguous, cat-and-mouse relationship, revealing the obvious fascination Norma Khouri holds for Anna Broinowski, and the ambivalent feelings of a filmmaker who realizes that she is being conned, just like everybody else.
At the end of the film we don’t know where the truth lies, just like the filmmaker herself. But for her, it doesn’t really matter anymore. The real life drama of Norma Khouri appears to be even stranger than her fiction, and like Pandora’s box, each new discovery leads Broinowski to new questions, drifting sometimes dangerously close to conspiracy theories. How then, Broinowski asks herself, did Norma, as the persecuted virgin she claims to be, obtain a distinguished talent residence visa from the Australian government, although the authorities knew perfectly well that she has a husband, two kids and dual citizenship? Did her “mentor” Liz Cheney-daughter of Bush’s Vice President and head of Near Eastern Women’s Affairs in the State Department and actually in charge of spinning anti-Arab propaganda-have a hand in it? Were the editors really as innocent as they pretended to be, or did they just smell the big money in this particular context and use Norma as much as Norma used them?
What is ultimately fascinating about Broinowski’s film is less a question about what is true about Norma’s story, but more about why it worked. “Hoax authors are a phenomenon on the rise because we are now living in an age where truth is no longer a matter of ethics but a commodity to be bought and sold in this laissez-faire capitalist world of information,” Broinowski explained when I met her in Sydney. “And since 9/11, right from the top level down, the politicians have set the example by showing us you can spin anything as long as you’re convincing and people buy it, no matter if it’s true or not. The only thing that matters about truth anymore is how much you can sell it for. So Norma, like many other hoax authors, realized that if they slap “non-fiction” on the cover of their book, they will make a lot more money than if they call it a novel. Norma – from her sphere of ethical disconnectedness – doesn’t see anything wrong with it. She actually says that if politicians can spin the idea that there were WMDs in Iraq and use it as a reason for invading the country and slaughtering a hundred thousand innocent Iraqis, why can’t I spin my message about Jordan and stop women from being killed? She is like a bastard child of our age, and the film tries not just to blame Norma, but actually reflect on the system that allows Norma to exist and thrive. I think Norma is a parable for our time, and this film is not really about a hoax book, but about spin, truth, belief, deceit, and propaganda.”