The idea of the documentary, or more precisely the theory behind the documentary is to show the truth of whatever certain subject the said documentary is about. Soviet revolutionary filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov argued for presenting "life as it is". This has been the crux of documentary filmmaking since the very conception of cinema itself. The most early cinema was just that - life as it was. Even Robert Flaherty's silent cine-docs, though rife with precognition and precondition, were still, in essence, life as it was. With the probable exception of the obvious propaganda work of Leni Riefenstahl and other politically-agenda'd filmmakers, this has been the prevailing attitude toward the documentary for nearly a century's worth of cinema. Flawed many times over, and yes, oft used toward a certain agenda, but mostly working toward a goal of truth. At least that is the theory.
Now, jump ahead to our very own jaded, bitter, post 9/11, reality TV-riddled world and you get documentary as performance piece. The likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and films such as the engrossing yet incendiary Capturing the Freidmans, not to say anything about the zombie-invasion-esque onslaught of reality TV, have come together to turn the documentary form into something more like a P.T. Barnum sideshow. Daniel B. Wood of the Christian Science Monitor dubbed this whole new genre as docu-ganda. More so than ever before, even possibly more so than the already noted Ms. Riefenstahl and her pretty little Nazi boy-toys all in a row, the documentary has become a tool for socio-political manipulation.
Vertov also spoke of documentary being "life caught unawares", and perhaps this is merely the fruition of his precognitive theory of documentary evolution. All this of course leads to the documentary at hand in this review (and it's about time too) - Forbidden Lie$. More and less than documentary. More and less than sideshow. More and less than truth. But more or less what exactly? Anna Broinowski's film is the story of Norma Khouri, a Jordanian woman who once wrote a bestselling memoir about her Muslim best friend who had been killed by her own family for dating a christian man. After a whirlwind world tour promoting the book and gathering money for charitable organizations an Australian journalist blows the proverbial cover off the real story. Norma Khouri is a complete and utter fraud.
Under investigation by the F.B.I for bilking others out of their money, Khouri's best-selling tale is unraveled to reveal lie upon lie upon lie. Now Broinowski has given Khouri the opportunity to either prove her story true or come clean about its lies. What we get is taken on a ride by Khouri (and possibly Broinowski too) through the streets of Jordan searching for what may very well be a ghost of her own making. What is truth, what is a lie? Even at the end, when the walls come literally down around Khouri we are never given a suitable answer. Perhaps we are the ones who are caught unawares as Vertov had predicted. Perhaps this is documentary as sideshow. Truth is never meant as anything but a faint question somewhere in the distant past. A thing never meant to be answered. And perhaps we don't even care, as long we enjoy the ride getting to that same said unanswered question. It is a new dawning of a new documentary age and whether it is good or bad (or inevitable) it is here to stay. [05/31/09]