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She went from a sceptic to a convert in 48 hours, and it took a year before she accepted that she was making a portrait of a great con artist, Anna Broinowski admits to Andrew L. Urban of her documentary about the literary hoaxer Norma Khouri.

The first thing you ask yourself after watching Forbidden Lie$ is how did filmmaker Anna Broinowski get the willing and complete co-operation of her subject, Norma Khouri, considering the film is no advocate for Khouri’s story. It is of course the first thing I ask Broinowski when we meet in the bar of Sydney’s Chauvel cinema for an interview about her terrific film of this extraordinary story.

“After her book, Forbidden Love, was exposed by Malcolm Knox as a literary fake, Norma disappeared to Chicago… I got a contact email from Malcolm and I offered to tell her side of the story,” says Broinowski, who was nonetheless sceptical. To show her credentials, Broinowski invited Khouri to fly to San Fransisco, where her previous doco, Helen’s War, was being screened. Helen’s War is a profile of Broinowski’s aunt Helen Caldicott, noted anti nuclear activist who has a 30 year track record of being alarmed. Being a family member, Broinowski gets a refreshing – and refreshingly sceptical - angle on her subject which makes the film more approachable than if it had been made by another filmmaker. That element convinced Khouri to co-operate with Broinowski.


So filming began. “She is very credible,” says Broinowski. “We filmed for two days, shooting the master interview, and I went from sceptic to a Norma convert in 48 hours. The crew was also captivated. She convinced me. She offered to take us to Jordan to prove that Dalia had in fact existed…” a fact that was one of the key elements that was thrown into doubt by Knox’s expose.

“It wasn’t until a year of getting to know her that I realised I was making a portrait of a con artist.”

And what a con artist; when Broinowski challenged Norma Khouri to explain the absence of records to prove Dalia’s existence, Khouri simply made up another slippery slide story. “She loved the challenge of having to improvise,” says Broinowski, who has remained on good terms with Khouri and admits that “half of me is in love with her” for her sheer brilliance.

“Her position is ‘catch me if you can’ – it’s a giant chess game to her. When she saw the finished film, she took it on the chin. I expected her to be either suicidal or to shoot me. But she was sanguine and tough. I don’t think she was that surprised …”

She is bringing up her two children, studying law (to specialise in human rights) and selling car insurance in Chicago, where police regard Norma Khouri as one of the greatest con artists in America. Perhaps the world. Perhaps ever.

“She seems to have a profound moral disconnect,” says Broinowski, “but it’s a veneer and I’ve never cracked it. You’re always being played. She’s truly marvellous…”

"stylised and engaging"

Broinowski’s film is stylised and engaging. “From the start I didn’t want to make a straight doco – it was always intended for the big screen, to be a piece of cinema. I saw it as a real life thriller.” The film is firmly documentary, but there are re-enactments and dramatisations that add edge to the film and give it a sustained tone of tension, entertainment and that wonderful ‘wow’ factor.

Khouri’s participation extended to posed shots of her smoking and blowing cigarette smoke into the air so Broinowski could overlay text on the smoke. Broinowski herself wasn’t planning to be in the film “but I had no choice … I had to play the role of the viewer … it’s something I had to do.”

Broinowski set off on this project with good advice from Malcolm Knox; “he said corroborate everything she says THREE times!”

Published September 13, 2007

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Anna Broinowski

Norma Khouri’s 2001 international best-selling memoir, Forbidden Love, about the honour killing in Jordan of her friend Dalia (played in the re-enactment by Linda Mutawi), was exposed as fake by Sydney journalist Malcolm Knox in 2004. This documentary explores the intricate web of lies spun by Khouri through probing interviews with Khouri, the media, doctors in Jordan, women’s rights activists, her family and her publishers Random House.
Australian theatrical release: September 13, 2007

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