By Karina Longworth
On Friday, True/False seemed to explode all over the city of Columbia, beginning with the annual March into March parade through downtown’s main drag, and continuing through a night of packed screenings and parties. I ate buffet-style kangaroo carpaccio at an event called Reality Bites. I saw a live, partially acapella performance of “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life,” from “Dirty Dancing.” And I got a chance to confirm that the film that’s probably attracting the most “buzz” at this festival definitely deserves it.
Let’s start with that last one. Anna Broinowski’s “Forbidden Lies” tracks the almost too fascinating to be believed story of Norma Khouri, the author of “Forbidden Love,” a bestselling purported memoir about the honor killing of Kouri’s best friend Dalia, a Jordanian Muslim who fell in love with a Christian soldier. The book was published in 2003, (with the support of the Cheney family, who latched onto Forbidden Love as the right piece of anti-Arab propaganda at the right time, it was translated into 18 languages), and Kouri promptly became a literary rock star and a controversial spokeswoman for Muslim women’s rights. A year later, an Australian journalist published a story revealing that many details of “Forbidden Love” were plainly inaccurate and/or apparently made up.
Khouri, calling the book “not fact, not fiction, [but] faction” and comparing it to “The Da Vinci Code,” claimed she had altered specifics in order to protect her friend’s family, but maintained that Dalia’s honor killing was very real. In an effort to clear her name, Khouri tells Broinowski that if they go to Jordon together, she’ll prove it. The ensuing trip devolves into a magnificent farce, and it forms the core of a portrait of Khouri––who has the charisma of a movie star and the spin talent of a grade-A publicist––as a con woman too clumsy to evade detection, but somehow so charming and clever that even those who have been hurt by her lies and crimes feel compelled to defend her.
At the Q & A after the screening, Broinowski admitted that she was initially snowed by her subject. “I went to Jordan really wanting to clear Norma’s name,” she said, “I thought I was gonna make this film that revealed this misogynistic, anti-woman bias in the media. Lo and behold, I was fooled, too.”
Khouri’s conning of Broinowski is brilliantly mirrored in the film’s first thirty minutes or so, in which the filmmaker lovingly––and, it turns out, totally cheekily––recreates the spell cast by the book, largely through farcically melodramatic reenactments. The fantasy peaks with a karaoke-esque music video, complete with the bouncing ball over subtitles, set to a ballad written by a Khouri fan inspired by Dalia’s story. A rigorous debunking of Kouri’s fabrications immediately follows, but Broinowski never stops having fun with fabrications of her own. Kouri, a very willing participant in the film, is often blue-screened into her location. As a kind of chapter marker, Broinowski has her subject literally blow titles out of smoke. And in one scene, Broinowski embellishes a Khouri accomplice’s waryness at being caught up in the con by digitally inserting that person into a B-grade film noir, in which she’s sent to “slep with the fishes”––an image which Broinowski later recyles as punctuation and punchline out of context.
Broinowski’s fabrications hardly undermine the film’s integrity––in fact, it’s through the melding of form and content that Broinowski both delivers her most potent commentary on the Khouri clusterfuck, and provides the film with some of its most crowd-pleasing moments. “I really love films that stylistically match what they’re about,” Broinowski said last night. “I figure one place where I over-stepped the documentarian’s obligation to the ethical was with [the out-of context use of the film noir material]. But it got a laugh.”
Amazingly, Khouri has seen and is content with the film––she even recorded DVD commentary with the director––and Broinowski and Khouri came out of their collaboration with some kind of special bond. “Neither of us trust each other, but we’re gonna be friends forever,” Broinowski says. “The relationship between the con artist and the filmmaker is a match made in heaven.”
More highlights from Friday night at True/False are forthcoming. Now I must head out and see my last two films of the fest, “Very Young Girls” and “Gonzo.”