Anna Broinowski’s feature documentary Forbidden Lies is one of Australia’s more successful films of the genre in recent times. About writer Norma Khouri’s work on honour killing in Jordan Forbidden Love, the film has won nine awards around the world, most recently a Writers Guild of America award for best documentary.
The film was pitched as a thriller that could do as well as any dramatic feature film, it $401,196 in gross box office receipts within Australia, and is about to be released in the United States.
So what can we learn from filmmaker Anna Broinowski, who screened her film to a select Melbourne audience of documentary filmmakers as part of the Headlands project on Monday night, and answered questions from the audience?
Firstly we were reminded how good a documentary can look when projected off DVD onto a big screen at RMIT’s School of Applied Communication. It looked great, partly because it is a constructed work rather than a fly-on-the-wall doc employing handheld cameras and available lighting.
Secondly we learnt that while this project scored green lights in rapid succession during its development, there were a few sizeable obstacles to overcome along the way.
“It’s about convincing people every step of the way,” Anna told the group.
The film is essentially about truth, and its genesis an article by Malcolm Knox in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004, exposing writer Norma Khouri’s book “Forbidden Love” as a fake. Anna secured Norma’s email address and offered her the chance to put her side of the controversy in a documentary. She agreed.
Anna received development funding from the AFC which enabled her to travel to the US, where Norma had fled once the controversy broke. She conducted an initial interview with Norma that took 13 hours, and became a central element of the film.
Clearly the film is all about Norma, whether she is telling the truth or lying, whether the con artist allegations are true, and whether she can substantiate her claim that her book is based on a real honour killing in Jordan. So it was crucial that Anna Broinowski formed a working relationship with Norma that would stand the test of time.
One of Anna’s key tasks was to convince potential investors that the feature doc could be hung around Norma, and so they constructed a three minute trailer based on the initial footage. It worked.
It was Anna’s safety blanket, security against the possibility that Norma might change her mind and close down access to the filmmakers as the project was shot.
In the end this never happened, partly due to Anna’s dextrous footwork in shadow-boxing with Norma Khouri, who is obviously the central brick around the entire film hangs.
Anna explained how she had gone through a personal journey during the making of the film, believing the Knox expose at the beginning, warning her crew to be very wary of Norma at the initial interview. At the end of it she had changed her mind. “I was convinced that she was some kind of victim of the media, or that someone had forced her to do some of the things she was accused of.”
“Initially she convinced me, totally,” Anna said, “and I really believed that going to Jordan would be an opportunity for Norma to prove her story was accurate.”
That changed when Anna found someone in the US who would administer a lie detector test on camera. “I assumed he was a showbiz kind of guy, but he turned out to be an ex-detective with the NYPD over 25 years,” she added. He interrogated Norma for hours, and warned that Khouri was the best con artist he had ever met.
The killer punch was the tape that Norma herself shot while in Jordan, in which she laughs about her web of deceit to her bodyguard, Jeremy. “I asked her for permission to include it in the film, and she agreed.”
Anna pitched the film originally as an opportunity for the audience to make up its own mind who to believe, Norma Khouri or Malcolm Knox, and it is clear that truth and different versions thereof are central elements of the film. “The film is about the truth itself and how it is constructed,” Anna told the audience.
During the making of the film, Anna became aware that Norma was homing in on Anna’s need to be honest and tell the truth about what she was doing. “Con artists are sensitive to your weaknesses and play on them, and that was mine,” Anna told us.
The film was pitched as a real life thriller, and the argument was that it had the potential to do as well as any local dramatic feature film.
She and co-producer Sally Regan checked all the boxes, bringing on board first the Adelaide Film Festival, the South Australian Film Corporation, FTO, and the ABC.
Palace’s Antonio Zeccola listened to Anna’s pitch and five minutes in he said “I want it.”
She showed us a three minute trailer she created early on, using footage largely from the single interview they did of Norma initially in the US. “I knew that people would be concerned about hanging an entire film on one main character, and I needed to be able to demonstrate that she could come up with the goods.”
Anna admitted that she lucked out with Khouri, who is a born actor, loves the camera, loves being in front of it, and embraced the cat and mouse game she played with Broinowski. “I like Norma, we like each other, and I still speak to her,” Anna admitted. “I see her as a friend, but I don’t trust her.”
Forbidden Lies was released on 27 September 2007 by Palace Films, and took $401,000 at the box office. The DVD is now available, and it is on release in the United States.
The film has won nine awards around the globe, the latest being the Writers Guild of America Best Non-Fiction screenplay award, which is timely as it comes before its North American release, around August this year.
Other awards include the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards Special Jury Prize, the Rome Film Festival ‘Cult’ Award for Best Documentary, the Al Jazeera Documentary Festival Golden Award for Best Feature Documentary, two AFI Awards, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award, the Film Critics’ Circle of Australia, and the Australian Film Critics’ Association.
Interestingly, Anna mentioned that the North American release was made possible through clearing the music used, She’s Not Here and Smooth Operator, which each cost $30,000. Anna gave a tip about the best way to get the rights to original music – find a way to contact the musician directly, because they will sometimes agree to waive a fee.
Broinowski told the assembled filmmakers that you have to pitch your project and overcome obstacles, citing how when “Forbidden Lies” went to the FFC, she was concerned to find out it had been knocked back on the grounds that the organization had just funded a number of feature docs, and didn’t want to become exposed on another one. “I called Brian Rosen and said you’ve got to give us the money. to his credit he asked me to meet him to talk about it,” she told us. Anna sold him on the film, he changed his mind and funded it.
One of the highlights of the film is the use of a technique where interview subjects are shown what other characters in the drama are saying about them. “Usually you cut from what one character says to another version of the story, but this allowed me to present the information in another way.” It worked brilliantly in the case of John, Norma’s ex-husband, who had said that they were still married. When shown the footage of Norma saying the marriage had ended years earlier, John was clearly angry. Sipping whiskey from a glass, he said that it was a subject that he and Norma would have to talk about. It’s a chilling moment in the film.
Broinowski mentions that she was influenced by Orson Welles’ film “F For Fake,” and deliberately employed a structure where she conned the audience several times over, initially showing them a positive view of Norma, then totally unraveling it, then complicating it until at the film’s end you’re not really sure of the truth.
Anna mentioned that all her films are constructions, and she is a control freak who likes to work out as much as possible of the film in advance of production. “It’s easy to roll the camera but I think that’s a dangerous approach,” she said.
Firsrt published in Screen Hub.