An Egyptian Cinema Revelation
The Mummy by Shadi Abdel Salam
The Mummy (also called The Night of Counting the Years), directed by Shadi Abdel Salam, must be one of the best Egyptian films ever. Discovered, slightly by chance, by the Hyères festival in France, it went on to be screened at the 1970 Venice festival as part of a “round table” devoted to Arab cinema, and then at the third Carthage Film Festival last October, where it was awarded the International Critics’ Prize.
As explained by the author in the following interview, The Mummy’s script is based on a true story: in 1881, in Cairo, the French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero and his assistants discover that highly valuable funerary objects belonging to the mummies of famous pharaohs (such as Ramses II, etc.) have been circulating clandestine and illegal markets. That means someone knows the location of those precious mummies that the Department of Antiquities has spent years searching for in vain! The investigation finds that the traffic’s origin is probably located in the village of a tribe with a particularly savage and withdrawn reputation. An archaeologist is dispatched by boat to the place where the Nile runs alongside the tribe’s mountains. He is joined by a small escort of soldiers on horseback. The investigation begins. Without success. In parallel, following the death of the tribe’s chief, old Selim, an “ideological” crisis begins. The Sages inform Selim’s two sons about the ancestral secret: for 1,300 years, the tribe has known the hiding place of several pharaoh mummies, plundering it in times of famine... Both “heirs” are appalled by this revelation and by the blasphemous audacity of their forefathers. One of them rebels and threatens to spill the beans: he is assassinated straight away. The second, at the end of a painful moral dilemma, goes to the archaeologist and uncovers everything. By night, the soldiers transport the sarcophagi to the boat, without the tribe having the time or the will to react by force.
Despite this crime-like plot, it is a profound reflection on the meaning and destiny of national cultural heritage – that popular treasure – that Shadi Abdel Salam devotes himself to. The Mummy is a film to reflect on at various levels. Its pared-down, almost hieratic style is fundamentally different from the whole of gesticulatory and melodramatic Egyptian cinema. We should hope that, despite the hostility on the part of bureaucrats – criticized by Shadi Abdel Salam below – he will be able to add other films to his promising oeuvre and achieve the reputation he would have had already had he been born under other skies.
Guy Hennebelle: Shadi Abdel Salam, who are you?
Shadi Abdel Salam: I’m an architect by training: I attended the Cairo School of Fine Arts. But I also took drama courses at several British Institutes. I settled in London (I speak English better than Arabic, for that matter) and then returned to Egypt to do my military service. Afterwards, I plunged into cinema, but through set design. Among others, I collaborated with the Polish director Kawalerowicz (Mother Joan of the Angels) who shot his film Pharaoh in Egypt. I was a costume and set adviser. I recorded some scenes myself which Kawalerowicz was unable to film in person because of the Six Day War. In March 1968 I started filming The Mummy; I had to stop several times because of problems deliberately caused by certain bureaucrats, the scourge of our cinema...
What exactly were you criticized for?
No one was convinced of the value of my subject. I must point out that I was only able to make The Mummy thanks to Roberto Rossellini. I had collaborated with him and, out of sympathy for me as much as out of interest in the theme, he agreed to present my project to our Minister of Culture who accepted it and ordered it to be produced on the basis of this recommendation. Forced to enable the shooting of a film they didn’t like, the bureaucrats did everything, at different levels, to sabotage it. Nevertheless, I completed The Mummy in October 1969. Convinced that the film wouldn’t work, they only had one copy made, which still hasn’t been distributed in Egypt to this day (August 1970). The Mummy mainly garnered attention abroad (at the film festivals of Hyères, Venice, Locarno and Carthage).
What budget did you have?
About 70,000 Egyptian pounds. Without the artificial trouble I was caused, the film wouldn’t have cost more than 50,000 pounds.
Is The Mummy your very first film?
Yes. Only after The Mummy did I shoot The Eloquent Peasant, a short film that also deals with the pharaonic era. Strictly speaking, however, I wasn’t a neophyte as I already had ten years of experience in the field of cinema under my belt.
Did you encounter any particular difficulties when directing?
No, not as far as the mise-en-scène is concerned. I did, however, have problems with several inexperienced actors. In our country, actors generally have a theatrical training which is why they tend to overact. I had a hard time imposing a certain sobriety on them.
The story you tell in The Mummy, is it well known in Egypt? Or did you read about it?
It’s a true story that I read about fifteen years ago. It’s a story by Gaston Maspero, the eminent French Egyptologist who spent thirty years in Egypt. There were other sources that inspired me: Breasted’s A History of Egypt, Gardiner’s Land of Pharaohs and Madame de Noblecourt’s Vie et mort d’un pharaon. I immediately loved this story when I read it. The fate of these pharaoh mummies who had survived a pillage 3000 years ago thanks to the piety of devout priests and then the mercantilism of an illiterate tribe had enthralled me. I considered this tragedy very similar in some respects to the one Egypt is going through today. We have an ancient national culture, but it lies buried deep in the memory of the people, who do not always understand its true value and have damaged it somewhat. The ambiguity of the relationship between tribe and treasure, between the Egyptian people and their culture, is what fascinated me. Gaston Maspero reports that the women of the tribe wept when they saw the archaeologists take away the precious sarcophagi on the Nile. Perhaps they regretted the disappearance of “the goose with the golden eggs”, but there is a possibility that they had a premonition, however confused, that they were witnessing an exceptional event.
Did you scrupulously respect the story as told by Maspero?
Yes. With the exception that in the book it was reported that Wanis, the young “informer” who had “spilled the beans” to the archaeologists, had received a reward of 500 pounds from the Department of Antiquities: in the film, I passed over this detail in silence as it would have made the young man’s gesture seem vulgar.
Do we know what became of this young man afterwards?
No. He disappeared. To Cairo, probably. Apparently, he wasn’t allowed to live with his family after what he had done. I am fascinated by this figure. He provided civilization with a real treasure. He had no idea about its true value, but he guessed the heritage could no longer be squandered as it had been in the past. What I like about him is that he had the courage to break with the tradition of his forefathers when he realized that it involved retrograde elements.
A friend, it seems, makes him intuit the truth and first tells him about the sarcophagi’s possible intellectual value...
Yes, a young man from the neighbouring village. He is the one who, because he is a foreigner, makes him see things from a different perspective. Until then, Selim’s son had always considered the stones he grew up among as large pebbles! Now it is suggested to him that they may be something else too. I think that’s when the audience realizes that the sarcophagi shown to him that morning (at his father’s funeral) contain the mummies of his ancestors.
So, your film is above all a reflection on the destiny of a national culture?
Absolutely. The crime narrative was just a pretext. Besides, The Mummy is a film that I felt, and therefore constructed, on various levels.
It is no doubt on purpose that you maintain a certain ambiguity about the role of the tribe. On the one hand, it’s a gang of looters violating graves, but on the other hand it’s a group of people who are the (ignorant) custodians of a precious heritage. You remain equally ambiguous about the effendis [men of high education or social standing], the archaeologists. On the one hand, they have science and culture; on the other, they are still – in the eyes of the tribe, i.e. the people – foreigners cut off from national realities, even though they are Egyptians.
Exactly. All this is intentional. I don’t claim to be the prosecutor of the tribe – they live as they can. But I’m not an opponent of the effendis who came from Cairo (on a boat with an Ottoman flag: we’re in 1881) either, because they represent science, and the only solution when falling behind in this area is to try to catch up. Of course, archaeology is just a symbol here. You can replace it with something else in spirit. The atomic bomb, or any other modern invention. Any new upcoming culture is “foreign” (even if it is a “national” one). The effendis bring new, unknown habits. Newness is always shocking for a while; sometimes it even provokes a reaction. I’m more on the side of evolution myself, of the new, the modern. But thieves have my sympathy too. They were thieves, sure, but that was their life. They didn’t choose it. The young man is the one who suffers, because he is torn between his loyalty to his family and his awareness that their mentality is overtaken by the course of events. The elders don’t suffer, nor do the effendis. Only those caught in the middle suffer.
How do you explain this young man's awareness?
When Selim, his father, was young and the existence of the hiding place was revealed to him, the archaeologists didn’t exist or hadn’t arrived yet, so there was no problem. Selim’s son finds himself in an unprecedented situation. He feels that something is wrong. Remember the scene in which he goes to the hiding place with his brother for the first time: it is night, and they take a roundabout route. They don’t feel comfortable; they are a little ashamed of having to hide in this way.
In a way, my film is a fable about “lost forebears” as well: the archaeologist, who is Egyptian too, is in a sense looking for his national past. Just like Wanis, Selim’s son. Everyone searches with different means, because everyone has a different culture.
The Mummy also illustrates the social and cultural divide between two classes of the same people. The illiterate tribe has the treasure of popular culture. The intelligentsia has modern science. The fusion of both elements is necessary. Do you agree?
Yes, that is one more way of interpreting my film, among several others.
Nevertheless, these two classes are on the same page with regard to certain values. We see this in the way Wanis asks to be received by the archaeologist. He insists on being recognized as “a son of Selim”.
Absolutely. I’ve tried to suggest this connivance by means of language. Realism would have expected Wanis to express himself with a different vocabulary from that of the city’s cultivated effendis. I preferred that they both speak in the same way so as not to needlessly emphasize the division between them due to their different social status. Egypt is made up of both.
To respect reality, I suppose you should have had one speak Arabic dialect and the other a more literary Arabic?
Yes, but I deliberately erased this difference. Even in the make-up. They all have the same skin colour, whereas the peasants from Upper Egypt have, in fact, more of a sunburnt skin. I wanted to suggest that Wanis and the archaeologist were two brothers. Remember that the archaeologist arrived shortly after the murder of Wanis’s real brother. The archaeologist’s boat stops at the very place on the Nile where Wanis’s brother was killed: Wanis has lost a brother, but a different one arrives from Cairo. One should feel that these two characters are not enemies, but two young men looking for the same ideal. If Wanis goes to the archaeologist, he does so because he feels that the latter is his only real friend (although they have never spoken). I hope that one day all Egyptians will have the same culture. We have suffered for too long from the existence of two categories of Egyptians. This is less the case today, and one day it will no longer be the case.
It’s the first time that a film tries to show the link between the pharaonic and Arab civilizations.
Egypt was influenced by both. It’s a historical reality.
The effendis seem to behave like ethnologists towards “primitives”: they only show interest in the tribe’s cultural heritage, and no interest at all in their lot.
Yes, there is some of that in the attitude of the archaeologists. For them, civilization itself is more important than the people from that civilization. It’s a tragedy. But it’s a historical truth as well: progress always involves sacrifice.
Your film’s slow, refined, hieratic form contrasts sharply with the style of most Egyptian films...
I didn’t want to limit myself to the simple story of this discovery which, I repeat, was just a pretext for me. I wanted to weave a web of feelings around this story. I think the difference between my film and a realistic film on the same subject is as big as that between a poem and a simple story. My position is far from cinéma vérité. It’s the opposite. My film is rather inspired by the style of oriental ballads. The slowness was a way for me to arrive at a hypnotic rhythm. Because my film is essentially the story of a young man who thinks, looks at things and suffers from reflecting on the reality around him. The hero doesn’t engage in any action (except when he goes to the trafficker Mourad). I really insisted on emphasizing the quality of the atmosphere, for life in Upper Egypt has that kind of unhurried pace. It’s hot, people don’t gesticulate much, they are strict, they don’t laugh. Screaming or crying is considered rude. They are quite introverted. I wanted to show both the Egypt of the past and the Egypt of the present and this is the form that “came out”: I don't know how...
Did you improvise a lot?
No, not at all. Everything was planned. My découpage was very precise.
How did you set about the music?
It was first composed in Egypt, but I wasn’t happy with it at all. The composer had done something Doctor Zhivago-like. I removed it all! I was lost, didn’t know which saviour to turn to! Then, the Italian Mario Nascimbene saw the film and agreed to write the music. I’m very satisfied with it. There’s an Arabic theme at the end that I added myself. I think a film like The Mummy doesn’t tolerate melody, in particular because of its slowness. It was more interesting to choose a kind of concrete music. What I like about the music of The Mummy is that it’s both modern and timeless. The same goes for the Arabic that I chose: I wanted to arrive at a neutral film that wasn’t overly marked historically. The issue we’re facing in Egypt today is to recover everything we lost during the Ottoman occupation and the British domination after that. We must recover our ancient language, our culture. For us to become modern, we must know how to stop and build a solid base to harmoniously integrate what’s new. We cannot keep on copying Europe forever.
While Egyptian cinema is rarely inspired by the pharaonic period, Egyptian painting seems more attached to it.
There is indeed a tendency towards pharaonism among some of our painters, but I think their attitude is a bit misguided. They want to imitate the past. Another danger, another mistake. The past is the past; we mustn’t lock ourselves into it. Otherwise we’re just producing things for tourists.
What do you think of Egyptian cinema?
I don’t like Egyptian cinema very much! We have some good directors, but we’re in dire need of auteurs in the true sense of the word. Egyptian cinema lapses into two mistakes: either we make old-fashioned films, imitating American films, Egyptian-style westerns, or we make films from a foreign, western perspective. Nobody is making something truly Egyptian.
Why are there so few good films among the considerable Egyptian productions?
The fault lies with the distributors who finance commissioned films, whereby the director is obliged to take such and such a singer, and so on.
But that’s the case in all countries. And yet the Brazilians, for example, have managed to launch their Cinema Novo...
Some youngsters are trying to launch a similar initiative, but it’s difficult. The producers are old and numb. We need a new generation.
Don’t you think that the makers are responsible too?
There are two kinds of young filmmakers in our country. On the one hand, there are those who would like to do something else but tell themselves: let’s start by making traditional films, become famous and then do what we want (a false reasoning, since they quickly turn into merchants, just like their predecessors); on the other hand, there are those who want to do something else from the outset but don’t receive any help at all and eventually get tired.
Your film’s photography is extremely carefully done...
Yes, I had an excellent director of photography: Abdel Aziz Fahmy. To obtain the specific light quality that I know and like, I only had twenty minutes a day for certain shots, right after sunset. At a rate of one shot a day for twenty-eight days! Before filming any of the monuments, I tried to pinpoint the most favourable time in terms of the light and indicated this to my cameraman.
When did you write your script?
Four years ago. Cinema is a very slow thing. That bothers me, because I no longer think the same today as I did before, and I feel that there would be other things to talk about as well. But the bureaucrats, I repeat, cause considerable damage to our cinema.
Do you have any current projects?
Yes. Akhenaten, the story of another famous pharaoh. But nobody wants to produce it. Apart from some critics, everyone in Egypt thinks The Mummy is worthless, because it’s not a commercial film... I do hope that I will soon have a second chance.
This text originally appeared as ‘Une révélation dans le cinéma égyptien : « La momie » de Shadi Abdel Salam’ in L’Afrique litteraire et artistique, no. 14 (December 1970).
With thanks to Monique Martineau-Hennebelle
Milestones: Al-mummia takes place on Thursday 21 January 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.