Is she or isn't she? Even after you've seen "Forbidden Lie$," the dizzying, drop-dead fascinating documentary on Norma Khouri, you won't be absolutely sure if she's on the level or a con artist ranked as "one of the best ever." That's how good she is.
The best thing about "Forbidden Lie$," directed by Australia's Anna Broinowski and a winner of multiple prizes in its homeland, is the way it puts your sense of reality into jeopardy. By showing Khouri in action, by letting us not just witness but actually experience what it feels like to have a master of deception in your life, it allows us to understand how and why these people have such a hold on the unwary.
We first meet Khouri in a brief prologue as the world first knew her, as the author of "Forbidden Love" (called "Honor Lost: Love and Death in Modern Day Jordan" in the U.S.), a book with half a million copies in print in 16 languages.
We see Khouri doing bookstore signings in Australia, where she now lives, and talking to journalists about her book, which describes the honor killing of her best friend, Dalia, a Muslim, for dating a Christian, in Amman, Jordan. Passionate about stopping this barbaric practice, Khouri looks at whomever is listening and says: "Someone has to hear it. I want the whole world to know."
Then comes the first shock. As exposed by an Australian journalist, "Forbidden Love" looks to be what one authority calls "a complete fabrication from top to bottom." Not only are many factual details about Amman wrong, but Jordanian human rights advocates and activists who have spent their lives fighting honor killings convincingly claim that Dalia's death never even happened.
More than that, far from being a "married to the cause" zealot, Khouri turns out to be a woman with a husband and two children and a complicated past: She's been on the FBI's radar as a suspect in real-estate fraud in Chicago, her home before she moved to Australia.
This is where filmmaker Broinowski, who includes re-creations of the book's plot in the finished product, got interested in the story. She approached Khouri to do a film and was astonished to learn that the woman was not fazed in the least by the charges. Khouri admitted to some tiny inconsistencies, but argued, "If Bush and Blair can spin the truth about WMDs to justify bombing innocent people, then why can't I spin Dalia's story to save women from being murdered on a daily basis?"
Khouri not only insisted that Dalia and her character were real, she offered to go to Jordan with the director to prove to her that Dalia had existed and that the incident in question really took place.
Almost nothing goes according to anyone's plan on that trip, but it is an education in itself to watch Khouri bob and weave with the assurance of an Oscar-winning actress when face to face with unpleasant reality. She has an explanation or a justification for everything that happens, and her strategic retreats when seemingly forced into indefensible corners would earn the admiration of Napoleon.
"You're not going to get one version of the truth, ever," she says to the director with a straight face. That may be the only statement this one-of-a-kind woman makes that you can safely take to the bank.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour and 44 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869