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Shadi Abd El Salam's Night of the Counting of the Years

9 December 2007

 

Our special thanks go to member Glenn Meyer who secured an excellent copy of the film and researched the director and his films.

 

December’s program featured the screening of the 1969 Egyptian film, “The Night of the Counting of the Years” (or “Al Mummia” in Arabic).Its director, Shadi Abd El Salam, is worthy of a bit of biographical introduction.

 

The Director:

Shadi Abd El Salam, was born in Alexandria, Egypt, on the ides of March in 1930. Mr. Salam is reputed to have been descended from the pharaohs, based on materials at the Library of Alexandria which houses the bulk of his personal papers and works.

 

He graduated from Victoria College, in Alexandria in 1948 at the age of 18 then studied theater arts in England for 2 years.  In 1955 he graduated as an architect from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Cairo and worked as assistant to the architect and artist, Ramsis W. Wassef until 1957. Thereafter he worked as a set and costume designer for several Egyptian historical films, and as a consultant, supervised the decoration, costumes and accessories for some of the scenes in the Polish film, “The Pharaoh”.

 

From 1963 to 1969 Mr. Salam taught at Egypt’s Cinema Higher Institute in the Department of Decorations, Costume and Film Direction.   It was not until 1968-69 that he directed the film, “The Night of the Counting of the Years”, for which he later received awards from Vienna, London and San Francisco film festivals.  This year, on the 100th anniversary of Egyptian film making, 20 of Egypt’s top film critics ranked the film as the best of the top 100 Egyptian films ever made.  This is quite amazing when one considers that this was the first and only full-length film ever completed by Shadi Abd El Salam, though he did direct a short film entitled “The Eloquent Villager”.  In 1970, Salam was appointed the Director of the Ministry of Culture’s Center for Experimental Films, a position which he held until his death in 1986 at the age of 56.

 

Another film, “The Tragedy of the Great House” in which Akenaten is the leading character, is an unfinished work which Mr. Salam died before completing.  He worked on the project for 10 years during which time he rewrote the script four times, but never settled on a final version, though all the decorations, scenes and costumes were finished. Glenn Meyer, who introduced the director and his film, noted that Salam was an “extremely careful, thoughtful man who crafted imagery more than most in this visually oriented medium”.

 

During his introduction, Mr. Meyer screened several slides containing costume designs for two of Mr. Salam’s historical dramas, noting that the they make one wish that Salam had completed “The Tragedy of the Great House”  as his main characters included Akhenaten, Horemheb, Queen Ti, the High Priest of Amun, and  other typical Amarna players. These materials are on display at the Bibliotheca Alexandria where a permanent exhibit about Salam and his work can be seen.

 

The film:

The Night of the Counting of the Years” was released in Egypt in 1969 and was well received there, but not necessarily at showings abroad.  In the US the film was both praised and panned;  a New York Times reviewer, quipped that “The Night of the Counting of the Years” often felt to him like the “years of counting the minutes”!   A reviewer at the San Francisco Film Festival, however, called it “one of the year’s most memorable films”.  In Egypt, this year, on the event of the 100th Anniversary of the production of the first Egyptian film, 20 critics named “The Night of the Counting of the Years”, the top Egyptian film of all times.

 

The film is based on the discovery of 40 royal mummies in a cache at Deir el-Bahri, now known as DB-320, which was discovered by antiquities authorities in 1881, but had long been known to a family who made part of their living by selling bits of its contents.  The mummies found in the cache included some of the most well known Egyptian pharaohs, including Ramses II.  The focus of the film, however, is not on the discovery of the cache, but rather the effect the cache and its discovery had on the family of tomb robbers in general and on a prominent member, Wannis, in particular.  The film is intense, and the characters true to life.  The conflicting emotions the young Wannis struggles with once the family has initiated him into the secret of the cache’s location and their illegal pilfering, is masterfully handled by the director. 

 

The Night of the Counting of the Years” is well worth a viewing if you’ve not yet seen it.

 

Nancy J. Corbin

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