Forest Whitaker talks about learning Arabic and playing an Islamic convert in Two Men in Town

Competing at this week's Berlin Film Festival is Two Men in Town by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, starring Forrest Whitaker as an ex-convict who converts to Islam. Whitaker tells us he took Arabic lessons in preparation for the role.

From left, the actors Forest Whitaker, Brenda Blethyn and Dolores Heredia with the director Rachid Bouchareb at a screening of Two Men in Town during the 64th Berlin International Film Festival. Joerg Carstensen / EPA
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Competing for big prizes at this week’s Berlin International Film Festival, the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb’s latest drama Two Men in Town is a kind of contemporary Western set against a backdrop of immigration and racial tension along the border between the United States and Mexico. Forest Whitaker, who picked up a Black Pearl Career Achievement award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival last October, stars as William Garnett, a newly released convict struggling to turn his life around after 18 years behind bars. In prison, Garnett converted to Islam and chose a path of peace. But he can never quite shake off his violent past, especially when old friends and enemies will not leave him alone.

“I had never explored this type of character before,” the 52-year-old Whitaker says, when we meet in Berlin. “I’ve dealt with suppression of emotions and anger and pain in various movies. but this was different. I’m always excited about a new journey to some room that I haven’t visited before.”

Born in France to Algerian parents, the 60-year-old Bouchareb has a long track record of sympathetic films touching on Arab and Muslim issues. He even succeeded in getting French law changed with Days of Glory, his Oscar-nominated 2006 drama about North African soldiers who suffered discrimination after fighting for France during the Second World War. Two Men in Town is actually a loose remake of a 1973 French thriller with the same title, starring Alain Delon as a former convict trying to live a clean, crime-free life. But Bouchareb stresses his update is a radical makeover that addresses more contemporary issues.

“Alain Delon, in the original film, is not converting to Islam,” says Bouchareb. “I didn’t see the point in just remaking a film that was well-made for its time. So I wrote a new story that deals with the subject matter of immigration and how Islam is seen in the United States and I decided my character would be played by an Afro-American. All these elements were of great interest to me.”

Renowned for his intense preparation for screen roles, Whitaker had Arabic lessons before playing Garnett. “I studied Arabic extensively with an imam so I can do the entire prayer of Islam,” he says. “In fact, Rachid didn’t put most of it in the movie, but in some scenes I would be speaking five minutes of Arabic. I also had to brush up on my Spanish to play this part. Lots of different challenges.”

Garnett wears spectacles and a sharp suit, a look clearly inspired by Malcolm X during his involvement with the controversial Nation of Islam movement. Although Whitaker does not describe himself as religious, he recalls having illuminating conversations with Nation of Islam members in his youth.

“When I was a kid, they used to go through the neighbourhood. They used to come to the door and I would engage in conversations with them and with other religious people who came to the neighbourhood. I was really intrigued by them.”

As Two Men in Town unfolds, despite his best efforts, Garnett is forced to choose between his new religious principles and his old life of crime. The film’s take-home message seems to be that violence is sometimes unavoidable, even for an avowed man of peace. But Bouchareb disagrees.

“Oh no, I don’t say that,” the director protests. “The subject matter of the film is really somebody trying to master all these violent emotions within himself. He’s got to tame this violence, this hatred. In a way, his conversion to Islam is a kind of tool that he is trying to gain – through faith and spirituality. He really hopes he is going to master this violent element in himself. It’s some kind of therapy for him. This is what is being shown in the movie.”

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