“Cool-headed, lighthearted and outrageously entertaining, ‘Forbidden Lie$’ is documentary-as-striptease, a careful peeling of claim and counterclaim to reveal one of the most complex literary scandals of our time,” says the New York Times’ Jeanette Catsoulis about Anna Broinowski’s film, echoing the mostly positive press its received. “Crossing continents and genres, Anna Broinowski’s distinctively styled movie blends candid interviews and tongue-in-cheek re-enactments into what can only be described as a literary whydunit. Brilliantly edited (by Alison Croft and Vanessa Milton) for suspense rather than chronology, the movie is a she-said-they-said puzzle whose particulars pale beside Ms. Khouri’s devastating charisma and resilient intellect.”
“Australian filmmaker Anna Broinowski’s mission in ‘Forbidden Lie$ is to find out who the real Norma Khouri is,” writes the San Francisco Chronicle’s G. Allen Johnson in his enthusiastic review of the movie. “Khouri gained notoriety as the author of a best-selling “nonfiction” book about an honor killing in Jordan (‘Honor Lost’ in the United States), which got her on the ‘Today show but also got her exposed as a faker by a journalist in Australia, where the book was also popular, and back on the radar of the FBI, which had named her as a suspect in more than one fraudulent scheme.
“But the book was not a fake, Khouri insists, and drags a skeptical Broinowski from Chicago to Australia to Jordan trying to prove her case. Broinowski also interviews many who are convinced Khouri is a fraud, and a dangerous person.” According to Johnson, “‘Forbidden Lie$’ recalls Orson Welles’ ‘F for Fake,’ the 1972 documentary, in which Welles depicts art forger Elmyr de Hory and his unscrupulous biographer Clifford Irving – a freewheeling film that is either the truth or an elaborate put-on by Welles himself. Although Broinowski doesn’t go quite that far, she is clearly having fun with her slippery subject, who agrees to all manner of “re-creations” in this cinematically cool, imaginative flick.”
More praise comes from the Village Voice’s Elena Oumano, who writes that “one of ‘Forbidden Lie$’s’ deepest pleasures is watching Broinowski’s struggle to resist her subject as Khouri’s story gradually falls apart… Rapid-fire interviews with Khouri’s detractors seem to seal the case against her, but then the film’s heart—an antic sequence worthy of a Hollywood thriller, in which Khouri persuades Broinowski to take a ‘fact-finding’ trip to Jordan—raises doubts again. This entertaining, provocative film raises pointed issues about con artists and their sometimes-culpable ‘victims,’ and also speaks to the elusive pursuit of documentary truth.”
Other fans of the documentary include the Hollywood Reporter’s Sura Wood who calls it a “riveting, near flawless documentary… Playing like a narrative thriller consumed with intrigue, petty crime and deception, this is one of the most watchable docs to come along in a while.” However, the reviewer also adds that “Broinowski utilizes visual gimmicks, reenactments and ironic counterpoint on the soundtrack to spice up the talking heads footage. These are unnecessary embellishments with a central figure as repugnant and mesmerizing as Khouri…” Slant Magazine’s Nick Schager similarly points out that “‘Forbidden Lie$’s’ expressionistic tendencies—green-screen backdrops, self-consciously arranged compositions and juxtapositions, an all-white set in which speakers listen and respond to others’ comments—eventually come off as needless ornamentation.'” Still,” he concludes, “its central tug-of-war provides a stunning up-close glimpse of a con artist’s psychotic—delusional, egomaniacal, unhinged, needy—psychology, as well as encapsulates the documentarian/reporter’s inherent struggle to parse fact and fiction.”
Variety’s Richard Kuipers’ resonse to the film is a little cooler. He writes that the “pic stays afloat as long as Khouri, a supreme performer if ever there was one, has the answers. But Broinowski commits the crucial error of hanging around way too long once all key questions have been answered.” Susan Gerhard, who covered the film for indieWIRE when it played at the 2007 Vancouver International Film Festival, also offered a lukewarm take on the documentary, calling it “compelling, if overlong… As Broinowski’s tirelessly tries to get to the bottom of Khouri’s cons, the film borders on tedium at moments, but it offers a lesson in integrity for documentarians working with unreliable subjects: The director is never less than straightforward with her star about the purpose of the film, which is to verify her stories. As it turns out the pit of deception is bottomless, and the star is never less than outgoing in front of the camera as she spins her endless loop of creative half-truths and outright fabrications into a web she can’t exactly escape.”
The most wholly negative reaction to the film comes from Anna King, in her one-star review for Time Out. King writes that the film, which deals with events that took place in 2004, feels like “yesterday’s news,” explaining: “Various friends-turned-enemies, journalists and experts are questioned, but the psychology of compulsive lying is left unexamined. In the end, watching Broinowski and Khouri’s battle of wits feels like mere rubbernecking; sometimes, it’s kinder to look away.”
Overall, however, the consensus seems to be that this is an entertaining doc with an especially engaging subject at its center. As Mark Pelkert writes in the New York Press: “by the doc’s end, how much of what Norma says is fact or fiction doesn’t matter as much as the entertaining, infuriating journey that Norma (and Broinowski) has taken us on.”