Al-Mumia: The Night of Counting the Years Film
Chadi Abdel Salam | Egypt 1969 | 1h43m | Classical Arabic with English subtitles | 15
Al-Mumia: The Night of Counting the Years (Egypt, 1969) is often regarded as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made. It is based on a true story: in 1881, precious objects from the Tanite dynasty started turning up for sale, and it was discovered that the Horabat tribe had been secretly raiding the tombs of the Pharaohs in Thebes. A rich theme, and an astonishing piece of cinema with a powerful grasp of time and the poetry it carries. The carefully measured pace, the classical spoken Arabic, the haunting score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene, all work in perfect harmony. The film has a sense of history like no other, and Italian director Roberto Rossellini agreed to lend his name to the project after reading the script. It features actress Nadia Lutfi, a superstar during the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema. It was restored by the World Cinema Foundation at the Cineteca di Bologna.
The Dominion opened in 1938 and was designed in the Art Deco style. It is a listed building, and the only independent suburban cinema in Edinburgh. Focusing on providing a luxury cinema experience, this is the perfect venue for an Egyptian red carpet event. Guests will receive a complimentary glass of wine and a snack on arrival.
This screening was part of AiM’s focus on Africa’s Lost Classics, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).
Cineteca di Bologna
Via dell'Industria, 2
Tel: +39 051 6018607
Africa in Motion 2017 | Dominion Cinema in Edinburgh | 1 Nov 2017
Melbourne International Film Festival 2018 | Melbourne, Australia | 16 Aug 2018
CLIP 1: In this sequence we notice the juxtaposition of the museum employees with the tribesmen, who both aim to “protect” the treasure in their own way.
CLIP 2: Representatives of the museum and the tribe meet, and the antagonism and parallels between the two parties is heightened by their dress, the landscape and setting in which they are presented.
Al-Mumia: The Night of Counting the Years (Chadi Abdel Salam, Egypt, 1969) is often regarded as one of the greatest Egyptian films ever made. It is based on a true story: in 1881, precious objects from the Tanite dynasty started turning up for sale, and it was discovered that the Horabat tribe had been secretly raiding the tombs of the Pharaohs in Thebes. A rich theme, and an astonishing piece of cinema with a powerful grasp of time and the poetry it carries. The carefully measured pace, the classical spoken Arabic, the haunting score by the great Italian composer Mario Nascimbene, all work in perfect harmony. The film has a sense of history like no other, and Italian director Roberto Rossellini agreed to lend his name to the project after reading the script. It features actress Nadia Lutfi, a superstar during the Golden Age of Egyptian Cinema.
About the Director:
Shadi Abdel Salam was a film director, screenwriter and costume and set designer. Born in Alexandria on 15 March 1930, he graduated from Victoria College in Alexandria in 1948, and moved to England to study theater arts from 1949 to 1950. He joined the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cairo where he graduated as an architect in 1955.
Abdel Salam was first and foremost an art director. He designed the sets, decorations and costumes for some of the most famous historical Egyptian films, among which Al Nasser Salah Ad-Din (Saladin the Victorious, 1963) by Youssef Chahine.
The Mummy was Abdel Salam's first and only feature film. It was made as a sudden breakaway from the traditions of the Egyptian film industry and incurred envy and bureaucratic interference; however, helped and encouraged by Rossellini, the film did eventually see the light of day. The result is both uncompromisingly political in nature and entirely personal. The director has evoked the spirit of Ancient Egypt through a narrative which concentrates on the moral dilemma of the modern and young demographic of an ancient culture.
Abdel Salem died on 8 October 1986. His designs can be viewed in a permanent exhibition in Alexandria Bibliotheca.
Historical & Cultural Context
Egyptian cinema is one of the oldest cinemas on the African continent, and in the Arab world. It is also one of the most consistently successful cinemas, and in many countries became the norm for filmmaking. Strong at genre films, with a star-system unrivalled by anywhere on the continent and in direct competition with Hollywood during the age of Classic Hollywood (1940s-1960s), Egyptian cinema however, became very formulaic and stale. With Youssef Chahine, Abdel Salem was one of the new auteur filmmakers from the 1960s, who imbued Egyptian melodrama with an injection of realism. This came at a time, at the end of the 1960s, when Arab filmmakers were starting to rebel against the censorship and staleness of the filmmaking of the past decades. In the context of the Middle East and Israel crisis in 1967, filmmakers came together and responded to the ‘defeat-conscious’ cinema, in order to renew it, and a manifesto on New Arab Cinema saw the light of day at the Damascus Film Festival in 1968. Al-Mumia came out of this new interest in realism and negotiating dissidence into the genre-forms.
Indeed, set in 1881, a year before the start of British colonial rule, the film is based on the true story of the Abd el-Rasuls, an Upper-Egyptian (south of Egypt) clan that had been robbing a cache of mummies discovered at an ancient tomb near the village of Kurna, and selling the artefacts on the antiquities black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members decides to assist the Antiquities Service to find and preserve the cache. The film casts its story in terms of the search for an authentic, lost Egyptian national identity, represented by the neglected and misunderstood artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilisation. However, the conflict between city and countryside suggests questions that are not usually confronted in cinema, making it an ambiguous, unsettling reflection on the price of identity in a modern Egypt stuck in the past.
Its slow pace, unusual camera angles and striking colours give the film a dreamlike quality, reinforced by Mario Nascimbene's eerie music. Moreover, the dialogue is entirely in classical Arabic, a very unusual trait for an Egyptian film, making it a ‘timeless’ and almost unplaceable visual document of a new Egyptian cinema.
The title, Night of Counting the Years, is (almost) a direct translation of the Arabic title, and if it feels like a long title, that is quite common in the English translation of Egyptian films, a consequence of the poetic nature of Arabic. However, in the original title is The Day of Counting the Years: ‘Yawm’ being ‘Day’. We could speculate that ‘night’ may be more mysterious, more ambiguous than the word ‘Day’ in English.
Even though Egyptian and other film critics consistently list The Mummy as one of the most important Egyptian films, it remains largely unknown, both within Egypt and elsewhere, despite winning a number of awards at European film festivals. The film was completed under difficulties like indifference, jealousy and official opposition, mostly due to censorship in Egypt and because the filmmaker took his distance from the formulaic Egyptian cinema from the previous two decades. Had it not been for the vigorous pressures exercised by Roberto Rossellini (to whom Abdel Salam pays generous tribute in his credit titles), this film might never have reached the screen.
The film was restored on the initiative of Martin Scorsese in 2009, by Cineteca di Bologna. The restoration of Al Momia used the original 35mm camera and sound negatives preserved at the Egyptian Film Center in Giza. The digital restoration produced a new 35mm internegative. The film was restored with the support the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. The actual restoration was funded by Armani, Cartier, Qatar Airways, Qatar Museum Authority and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture.
Martin Scorsese said of the film:
“A rich theme, and an astonishing piece of cinema. The picture was extremely difficult to see from the 70s onward. I managed screen a 16mm print which, like all the prints I’ve seen since, had gone magenta. Yet I still found it an entrancing and oddly moving experience, as did many others. I remember that Michael Powell was a great admirer. Momia has an extremely unusual tone – stately, poetic, with a powerful grasp of time and the sadness it carries. The picture has a sense of history like no other, and it’s not at all surprising that Roberto Rossellini agreed to lend his name to the project after reading the script. And in the end, the film is strangely, even hauntingly consoling – the eternal burial, the final understanding of who and what we are… am very excited that Shadi Abdel Salam’s masterpiece has been restored to original splendor.”
John Gillett, Monthly Film Bulletin, 5/72
Basil Wright, The LongView, St Albans, 1976
Martin Scorsese, quoted on the Film Foundation’s website: May 2009, available online: http://www.film-foundation.org/world-cinema
John Akomfrah, 'Dream Aloud', Sight & Sound, 9/95