Oscars 2015 Foreign-Language Spotlight: Mauritania's 'Timbuktu'

'Timbuktu,' Abderrahmane Sissako (Competition)

The sole representative of African cinema in competition this year, the fifth solo directing effort from the Mauritania-born, Mali-raised Sissako was inspired by the real-life story of the 2012 stoning in Northern Mali of a young unmarried couple by Islamists in front of hundreds of onlookers. Sissako is one of the filmmakers from sub-Saharan Africa to enjoy international recognition, and he's been a Cannes regular. Both Bamako (2007) and Waiting for Happiness (2002) screened on the Croisette, the latter winning the Fipresci critics honor for titles screening in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. (Sales: Le Pacte)

Abderrahmane Sissako's Cannes 2014 competition entry is the African country's first-ever Oscar nominee.

In the wake of the Jan. 7 terrorist attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the mayor of Villiers-sur-Marne, a Paris suburb, ordered a theater to stop screening Abderrahmane Sissako's Timbuktu.

Although mayor Jacques-Alain Benisti hadn't seen the film, which looks at life in a village in northern Mali that has fallen under the brutal control of Islamic fundamentalists, he sounded an alarm that the movie could be viewed as "an apology for terrorism." The ban didn't stand, though. The film, which screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014 and is nominated for the foreign-language film Oscars, had played in theaters throughout France without incident, and it was scheduled to resume screening in Villiers-sur-Marne two weeks later.

See more Oscars: 10 Most Nominated Movies (Photos)

The whole incident, says Sissako, "suggests the consequence of what jihadists want to do, to scare, because he was the only mayor in the 500 cities that showed the movie in France to decide not to show the film. He was a little scared, shocked, afraid. I understand this kind of reaction but cannot accept it, of course."

Sissako, 53, was born in Mauritania on the west coast of Africa and spent much of his youth in neighboring Mali before heading to Moscow, where he studied film, and then eventually settling in France. With films like 2002's Heremakono and 2006's Bamako, which show aspects of life in both Mauritania and Mali, he has become an internationally recognized filmmaker.

A Muslim, he watched the atrocities committed by Islamic fundamentalists around the world. In particular, he was haunted by a report of a man and a woman buried up to their necks and stoned to death for having children outside of marriage -- a punishment delivered by an Islamic group associated with Al-Qaeda that took over the Malian city of Timbuktu in 2012. "It was just a few lines I read in a newspaper, and it shocked me," he recalls. "It is very terrible in our modern civilization today to know that it is possible to step back, and I decided to make that situation the focus of my movie. Having the opportunity to make movies puts me in a position to be the witness for my country. I cannot be silent if something like that happens in my country and my continent."

See more Oscars 2015: The Complete Nominations List

Originally, Sissako hoped to film Timbuktu in Timbuktu itself, on the edge of the Sahara Desert -- Malian forces, with the assistance of French troops, had recaptured the city in 2013 -- but after a scouting trip, he decided the region still was too dangerous, so filming took place in Mauritania with the support of the government. In the finished film, Sissako looks at both the fundamentalists, who enforce Sharia law even as they violate its tenets themselves, and the villagers, many of whom quietly resist.

"It was very important for me to talk about the people in Timbuktu," says the director. "During the occupation of north Mali, the media talked only about the foreign person who was kidnapped, but they never talked about what happens in a small city -- the kind of humiliation they undergo but also their capacity to resist." That spirit is embodied by one woman, who walks through the town in colorful clothes in defiance of the jihadists' rules. "For me, she represents the spirit of the people," says Sissako. "Because of my optimism about humanity, it was very important for me to show this path to resistance."

Read more Oscars 2015: Who Will Win, Who Should Win (Analysis)

Unveiled in Cannes, Timbuktu was enthusiastically received by critics and was recognized with two awards, including the Ecumenical Jury Prize. When it was submitted by Mauritania for Oscar consideration, it became the first film that the African country has ever  entered for the Academy Awards competition.

Its nomination made headlines in Sissako's home country. "You cannot imagine what it means in my country," says Sissako. "My continent is happy to be here. We have very few opportunities in the media when they talk about Africa. It is such a beautiful continent. I represent Africa."

Submitting country Mauritania
Director Abderrahmane Sissako
Top award Ecumenical Jury Prize, Cannes Film Festival

Read up on the film's competitors in the foreign-language race, which are from Russia, Estonia, Poland and Argentina.