Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Believing Your Own Bullshit

When James Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, was published in April of 2003, it was championed by Oprah Winfrey and rose to the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list. Three years later, Frey's reputation was in tatters after confessing that parts of his memoir had been altered for literary effect.

The thin line between fact and fiction disappears quickly when people start embellishing their memories for dramatic effect or believing their own lies because they sound so appealing.  Think about people who have "enhanced" their resumes. Think about people you've hooked up with whose pictures looked nothing like they do in real life (or who may have substituted a picture of someone they wished they looked like).

Have you ever interviewed a candidate who oversold his qualifications with brazen grandiosity?

Have you ever replied to a personal ad whose "VGL" author turned out to be a complete troll?  

Welcome to the land of self-made makeovers, where a person's imagination is his greatest asset.

Sometimes blazing narcissim can be used to great comic effect. Anyone who has seen Robert Downey, Jr.'s  staggering caricature of a self-involved actor in Tropic Thunder will know what I mean. In Ben Stiller's new comedy megahit, Downey plays Kirk Lazarus, a blond Australian actor so impressed with his own talent -- and so utterly narcissistic -- that he undergoes a skin darkening procedure in order to portray an African American soldier in a war film.   

Downey keeps getting so far "into the character" (perhaps "under his skin" would be a better choice of words) that the real African American on the set finally tells him to cut the crap.  Watch Downey during his moments in the film's trailer to get a taste of his brilliant, over-the-top performance.

Delusions of grandeur or racially-toned dramatic verisimilitude are great for laughs.  But what happens when the person in question spins a narrative so compelling that it's hard not to believe her -- even when she is repeatedly unmasked as a world class con artist?

Meet Norma Khouri, whose controversial bestseller Forbidden Love (written to focus attention on the Muslim practice of "honor killings") was published by Random House in 2003 and revealed to be a literary hoax the following year by Sydney Morning Herald journalist Malcolm Knox.  As soon as director Anna Broinowski learned of Khouri's hoax, she was determined to make her next documentary about this woman.  

"I wanted to know what kind of woman could be so brilliant that, while on the run from the FBI, she could reinvent herself as a Jordanian virgin with a Fatwah on her head, write a bestseller, and convince the best publishing and media minds in the world that she was telling the truth," claims the filmmaker.

Broinowski's elegantly filmed documentary, Forbidden Lie$ will have your head spinning in disbelief as she interviews Khouri, gets led on wild goose chases in search of evidence that doesn't exist, and eventually gets conned by the star of her film.  The documentary plays out like a grand whodunit.  Indeed, many have likened it to Catch Me If You Can (in which Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed master con man Frank Abagnale, Jr.).  

It's rare that you encounter a documentary with bitingly clever art direction.  Beautifully filmed, with elements of Khouri's story constantly retold and reinvented along the way, Broinowski treats the audience to two hours with a world-class bullshit artist who keeps wildly improvising her way through life.  

There are gypsies would be envious of Khouri's skills.

As one experiences Forbidden Lie$, one is treated to a wealth of contradictions by experts in their field (some even get to contradict Khouri to her face).  What may be most amazing is that the filmmaker got Khouri's complete cooperation for the film. Watching Norma Khouri (a/k/a Norma  Touliopoulos)  dodge and weave her way past hard facts, discussions of her questionable past, and the damage she has inflicted on people around the world, viewers might find themselves touching their faces to make sure their jaws have not hit the floor.  

This woman could give lessons to George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Dana Perrino in how to be a more effective liar.

As someone who has no skill for deception, watching this film was an eye-opener.  It starts showing at the Roxie on September 19th and, trust me, you don't want to miss it.  The trailer sets up Norma Khouri's con while barely introducing viewers to the depth of this woman's powers of deception.

1 comment:

Candice said...

Thieves, liars and master manipulators. Do you want the truth or what I said? The whole family is nothing but a clan of gypsies. The brother Mike convicted of drugs, turned FBI informant. The daughter Zoe.....a protege in the making, longing for her mothers attention and Norma on the hunt for the next scam to fund her lifestyle