Feb 21, 1:56 PM EST

Movie 'Timbuktu' sweeps French Cesar awards days before it competes for foreign film Oscar

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PARIS (AP) -- The French film industry showered honors on "Timbuktu" at Friday's 40th annual Cesar awards - France's equivalent of the Oscars - selecting it as best movie, one in seven prizes it scooped up days before competing in Hollywood for an Oscar for best foreign film.

Abderrahmane Sissako, a Mauritanian, took best director's prize for "Timbuktu," set in the ancient north Malian city when it was under control of Muslim extremists.

Sean Penn was the other shining star at the Cesar ceremonies, given a Cesar of Honor for his life's work, and a standing ovation from the elegant crowd at the sumptuous Chatelet Theater. Penn was accompanied to the ceremony by Charlize Theron, who lit up with pride during her beau's award speech.

"Sean, France loves you," said Marion Cotillard as she presented the award.

Kristen Stewart was the other American given honors by the French with a Cesar for best actress in a second role for Olivier Assayas' "Sils Marie," a French-Swiss-German production starring Juliette Binoche.

Best actor and best actress awards went to France's new generation of young actors, Pierre Niney for "Yves Saint Laurent" in which he played the designer and Adele Haenel for "The Combattants."

"Timbuktu" was the star of the ceremony, nominated for awards in eight categories and sweeping up seven.

Sissako, accepting the best director prize, thanked his native Mauritania, where "Timbuktu" was filmed and his foreign crew was "protected," and France for proving it is a nation "open to others" by showering his work with awards.

"Timbuktu" is competing for an Oscar for best foreign film at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony. The movie plays out in Timbuktu during its occupation in 2012 by Muslim extremists who oversaw harsh Sharia law. Despite the reality he portrayed, Sissako revealed his humanist and optimistic view as he accepted best director's award.

"There is no shock of civilization. It doesn't exist," he said. "There is an encounter between civilizations."

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