An Interview with Anna Broinowski, Director of Forbidden Lies (2007)1
Rooney, Monique, Humanities Research
Monique Rooney: Let's start by talking about how we might think of Forbidden Lies as a film about 'passing'. Your film interests me because it explores passing in a very contemporary socio-cultural context. If we think about the black person who passed for white in the pre-civil rights United States, or the Jew who passed as a gentile during the Nazi regime, then the passer in those cultural contexts is someone who escapes persecution or racial prejudice or prosecution. In your film, passing is not so much about escaping as it is about claiming an identity that turns out to be (at least partly) fraudulent. Norma Khouri/Bagain Toliopoulos presents herself as a Jordanian refugee in order to market and lend authenticity to her book about honour killings. There have been other similar cases - Helen Darville, for instance, who presented herself as Ukrainian to sell her book about the Holocaust; there's also J. T. LeRoy /Laura Albert, the subject of an essay in this journal issue.
Anna Broinowski: We have a couple in Australia too.
MR: Yes, Helen Darville/Demidenko...
AB: Paul R. Radley, Leon Carmen, who passed himself off as Aboriginal woman Wanda Koolmatrie - and, of course, Ern Malley.
MR: So what do you make of Norma 's role in this context? Do you see her as a passer? Why is her identity fraud successful and marketable? How can presenting yourself as a 'refugee' who has been victimised be an empowering thing?
AB: She is the classic misery memoirist, in that it was her victim status that gave her the glamour and the fame, and to understand Norma you need to understand the environment that allowed her to flourish, and it was... two things: one was that she is of the Jerry Springer generation, so this is a generation that cashes in on public misery. The importance of what you have suffered increases with the number of people who know about it. So the more famously you can declare your suffering, the more of a celebrity you become. It's a badge. And she's very much an American in that way - she sees nothing wrong in telling as many people as possible what she went through.
MR: And her story is in many ways a rags-to-riches tale.
AB: And of course it's all a he - we'll get on to that. So there's that environment - a telegenic kind of culture that was totally geared up for exposing people like Norma, and shedding tears and making money out of the story. Then there is the environment of the build-up towards the Iraq invasion. So the Norma Khouri identity that Norma Bagain Toliopoulos constructed for herself was constructed in that period just before 9/11 and just before the Iraq war.
MR: She had impeccable timing.
AB: And it was a time in which there was an absolute explosion of Western interest in the Middle East. And the publishers were very much at the forefront of people trying to cash in on that. So there were a slew of misery memoirs featuring repressed-looking burqa-clad women on the covers - a kind of Middle Eastern kitsch Mills and Boon culture. And it wasn't so much the real Middle East, as 'Middle East Inc.', which is like a Western commodified, packageable, saleable image of the Middle East that Western readers were hungry to know about. Why? Because George Bush, one of the lines he was pushing at the time was, 'We will go in there to liberate their women/ And because there were a whole lot of middle-class readers in the West - America and Australia and elsewhere - who were feeling guilty about the idea that we should go and kill people and throw bombs on them, it assuaged their guilt to feel that somehow there was a feminist motivation behind this invasion, to free these repressed women from these tyrannical, misogynistic, barbaric, backwards Arab males.
MR: Yes, and it's a rhetoric that can also be deployed to justify the 'liberation' process. That is, in the logic of a George W Bush, the freeing of Jordanian women can be represented as the ultimate goal of a liberal democracy. …