By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Abderrahmane Sissako, the director of Mauritania's Oscar-nominated film "Timbuktu," says in a matter-of-fact tone reminiscent of his sober drama that his task was simply an exercise in humanizing harsh life under radical Islam.
The richly coloured film dramatizes the 2012 takeover of the Malian city of Timbuktu - a historical hub of Sufi mysticism - by rebel group Ansar Dine, which had occupied the northern part of the country and enforced strict Islamic law.
Interspersed between scenes of the occupation is the tragic tale of a cattle herder who accidentally kills a fisherman in a dispute and has no defence in the religious courts.
"The role of the artist is to be the witness of life," Sissako told Reuters. "Timbuktu" is sparsely-populated Mauritania's first Academy Award nomination for best foreign language picture.
In the opening scenes, Islamist rebels hand off a blindfolded Western hostage from one to another with a practical discussion of the captive's medication regimen.
These are some of the ways in which the 53-year-old filmmaker said he wanted to show the human side of jihadists and the people they harshly ruled. He said he did not want to cast them as one-dimensional villains or victims.
"If you want to talk about drama and humanity, it's very important to use a beautiful way to talk about that (and) not to be spectacular," he said.
"I try to explain that Islam was kidnapped by a few people with a very short vision of the world," he added. "Nobody comes (into) life with a Kalashnikov or beard."
Although considered a long shot for an Oscar, "Timbuktu" would be the fourth African film to win Hollywood's biggest honours on Feb. 22.
Sissako believes the nomination alone can show Africa in a different light to the rest of the world.
"I'm here because I'm African ... Africa needs to be more considered because Africa is not only war or famine," he said.
The film will go up against favourites "Leviathan," a Russian tragedy, and "Ida," a Polish period drama. Other foreign-language nominees are Argentine black comedy "Wild Tales" and Estonian war drama "Tangerines."
One of the reasons Sissako said he focuses on the minutia of daily life in occupied Timbuktu is to show what western media often overlooks.
"For me, the victim is only personal," Sissako said. "The humanity - that is the victim (of) this situation."
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy, Bernard Orr)