Anna Broinowski, an Australian filmmaker with a penchant for filming controversial women, found her perfect subject in Jordanian author Norma Khouri, whose book on honour killing, Forbidden Love, was alleged to be a string of fabrications. In an interview with Weekend Review, Broinowski explains the rationale behind her documentary on Norma. Excerpts:
How did the idea of making the film come about?
Norma Khouri was front-page news in 2004 in Australia because her book, Forbidden Love, had just been exposed as a hoax. I was fascinated by the revelation that she was a married mother of two from Chicago supposedly on the run from the FBI for a million-dollar fraud. I like to film unique and controversial women. In Khouri, a person who managed to convince the best minds in Western publishing and journalism that she was a Jordanian virgin with a fatwa on her head, while actually being one of the "best con artists operating today" [according to the Chicago Police], I knew I had found the subject of my next film.
I was also drawn to make a film about Khouri because I was very angry about my country's involvement in the invasion of Iraq and wanted to do whatever I could to address the anti-Middle-Eastern propaganda that was assaulting our airwaves at the time. Khouri's book felt like another cliché where Arab men are all evil and the women all oppressed. My mother had worked in Jordan when I was younger and I knew the truth was different — so it was good to have an opportunity through the film to re-educate Western viewers who believed Norma's book was the absolute truth.
What was the cost of the film? Who funded it and how long did it take to finish?
The film had a budget of A$1.5 million [Dh5.45 million]. It was financed by Screen Australia, the Adelaide Film Festival [where it premiered in 2007] and Palace Films and Becker International. It took about two and a half years to make, from the first pitch to the final cut. It is being distributed in the United States by Roxie Releasing and in the Middle East by Phars International.
The film attracted a huge response and won more than one award. Were you expecting such a reaction?
I was anticipating that it would find a strong audience because I knew that a female "real-life thriller" take on the popular Leonardo DiCaprio con film Catch Me If You Can would be an attractive idea for people. I was hoping to reach mainstream American audiences in particular as I knew they had a very limited idea of the Middle East. It ran for a year theatrically in the US, so I was pleased. But my greatest joy and honour was to have Middle Eastern audiences embrace the film too — through the Al Jazeera Film Festival. I partly made the film for those Jordanians who were directly hurt by Norma's book. It saddens me that the good work that was being done by Rana Hussaini and Dr Amal Al Sabbagh to try and end honour crimes was seriously damaged by the publication of Forbidden Love.
The film left many confused. Was Norma speaking the truth or not was left open. Was such an end intentional? Or was it because the whole situation is so complicated?
The open ending is intentional — the film throws the ball squarely back at the audience: "Con or artist? You decide." I am doing this to remind people how easily we can judge on appearances, how easily we can accept face-value "truths" and be wrong. I also wanted to ensure that audiences would spend hours arguing about the film when they left the cinema. The film uses Norma's web of fabrications as the case study for a meditation on the nature of "truth" itself, in a spin-driven media age where "facts" have become just another commodity to be bought and sold, regardless of whether they are facts or not. Trust no one and nothing without first checking is the message I want people to go out with.
What do you think of Norma?
I like Norma, although I cannot say that I trust her — and she doesn't trust me. She is great company, funny, charismatic, charming and always up for anything you throw at her. The fact that I like her doesn't mean I condone what she did — and she knows that. I think she has an extraordinary intelligence and I'd like to see her harness her talents to achieve positive change in the honour crimes area. I do not agree with her critics, who say that she didn't care about honour crimes and simply wanted to make money. I think she does care, deeply, but that she went about trying to change things in the wrong way. Why she did this probably has to do with negative patterns she picked up in early childhood — although exactly what her early experiences were, I am really not quite sure.
How close do you believe you have come to revealing her ‘real' character?
I revealed as much as Norma let me reveal. What we are left with are contradictory layers and stories about a person who herself doesn't want to reveal the truth. I am happy that Norma is an enigma at the end of the film. I would prefer people thinking about the way they have judged her and the assumptions they have made about her, reflect back on their own truths, either hidden or public.
Did your feelings and perspective towards the book and the writer's character and circumstances change between the beginning of making the film and the end of it?
Norma did originally promise to reveal the real Dalia's identity on camera and I thought that she would. Of course when she didn't, the film became a lot more about Norma's tendency to fabricate and a lot less about the issue of honour crimes.
How difficult was it to ask other people, such as the FBI investigators, the American lawyer, the lie-detector specialist, Norma's father, Jordanian journalists and women activists, to appear in the film?
Not difficult at all. I told everyone, including Norma, that the film was presenting all sides to this very confounding story and every one was happy to present their point of view.
Jordanians argued that the whole book was a set-up, showing the myriad gaps it has. Do you agree or disagree with such a description?
I think the book was an unfortunate example of publishers and agents being keen to cash in on the hunger among Western readers for "behind the veil" misery memoirs about Middle Eastern women in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
In their hurry to get the book out, they neglected to check the facts. Remember, too, that Norma was extremely convincing, that she did persuade everyone who worked on the book that it really was a true story.
Random House has since cracked down heavily on any authors submitting "true" stories from exotic, far-flung regions — I believe they were very burnt by the whole Norma experience. They immediately pulped the book when Norma was revealed to be a hoax. The only country that kept it on the shelves, to my knowledge, was France, who slapped a "fiction" sticker on the cover and kept on selling it.
It has been suggested to me by American audiences more than once that the reason Norma was never arrested by the FBI was that she was working for the CIA [helping sow anti-Muslim sentiments through her book and public appearances] — which is one juicy conspiracy theory! I think I'll let your readers form their own opinions.
Which are the scenes you believed were closer to the truth and you wanted to highlight them?
My favourite sequence in the film is Rana Hussaini's "book tour" of Jordan. Everything else around it is window dressing, entertainment to get people listening and watching when Rana appears. Those 12 minutes with Rana are a precious chance for me to give Western viewers a window to Jordan from a Jordanian's (rather than the usual Westerner's) point of view.
Do you still follow up on what happened to Norma, her father and husband? If yes, could you please share with us some information?
Norma's husband is still in Queensland and her father is still in Jordan as far as I know. I have had no contact with either of them since making the film.