I don’t trust lie detectors. This is partly a gut feeling that if I were attached to one my heartrate would increase simply on being asked a delicate question, let alone answering it untruthfully. So I find it interesting that both scepticism about lie detectors and trust in them is used to undermine the assertions of Norma Khouri, the subject of Anna Broinowski’s new documentary, Forbidden Lie$. Khouri wrote a memoir of her friend Dalia’s honour killing at the hands of Dalia’s family in Jordan. Khouri’s book Forbidden Love, marketed as nonfiction, told how Dalia’s death was one among thousands of its kind, and arose out of the repressive attitude that is present in every Muslim family. It seems like it was a Western willingness, maybe even a desire, to believe these stereotypes that led to the book being a bestseller. Would it have been as popular as fiction? That seems to be what it actually was, after numerous errors of fact were revealed by a couple of Australian journalists. I do think that its appeal did have something to do with the belief that this was a true story about actual people; in any case, the public and the publishers felt betrayed and book was withdrawn amid the ensuing scandal.
Anna Broinowski has made a documentary that’s fascinating not just for the story it tells, but also for the way it tells it. She interviews Khouri (whose participation in the film goes as far as travelling with Broinowski to Jordan, apparently in an effort to demonstrate the veracity of the tale) and her detractors (Australian and Jordanian journalists, Jordanian doctors and human rights activists, former friends), and all along the way the film acknowledges its own artifice. Interview sets are pulled apart on camera, dramatic recreations show us the actors as actors, and interviews from one part of the film are played back to other interviewees in another part for comment. Not only does our trust in Khouri’s story become ambivalent (yes, this trust gets undermined, but when Khouri responds to some charge against her, well, she’s so convincing). Broinowski herself says in an ABC radio interview that she did at first believe Khouri and also, as a filmmaker she’s telling tales too. Yes, we can’t trust a film simply because it shows us something actually happening; even before the hysteria around digital media we couldn’t trust cameras. The difference is that Broinowski isn’t trying to deceive us. (Well, I believe she isn’t, and that belief is founded partly in the wider context outside of the film text itself.)
Image: Forbidden Lie$, Anna Broinowski, 2007
So, back to lie detectors. At one point Khouri is hooked up to it and asked specific questions about her story. Cut to a publisher, who has worked on a book about lie detectors and doesn’t believe they’re accurate. hmmm, Khouri may be a cool customer and fool the machine, but she won’t fool us. We won’t believe her because we won’t believe the machine. Later on we see the lie detector expert talking about the results of his session with her. Look, he says, she failed, she registered a definite spike in the readings on being asked this question. Ah ha! She was lying, the lie detector confirms it. And then later on she peels back another onionskin and we’re almost not sure again.
Forbidden Lie$ doesn’t directly tell us what to believe, but it certainly makes us consider who we believe, and why, and how.