THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE YEARS
Director / Screenplay: Shadi Abdelsalam
Production Co.: Egyptian Cinema General Organisation
Cinematography: Abdel Aziz Fahmy
Editor: Kamal Abou el Ella
Art Direction: Salah Marei
Music: Mario Nascimbene
Costumes: Shadi Abdelsalam
Production promoter: Roberto Rossellini
Wanniss: Ahmed Marei
Mother: Zouzou El Hakim
Brother: Ahmad Hegazi
Zeena: Nadia Loufty
Maspero: Gaby Karraz
Murad: Mohamed Nabih
Ayoub: Shafik Nourredin
1st uncle: Abdelmonem Aboulfoutouh
2nd uncle: Abdelazim Abdelhack
Ahmad Kamal: Mohammed Khairi
Badawi Bey: Ahmad Anan
Stranger: Mohammed Morshed
Arabian, with English subtitles
[In Africa] there is also an auteur cinema - and there are certain seminal films that made this feasible. You can't talk about African auteurism without the Egyptian Shadi Abdelsalam's Night of Counting the Years in 1970 because before it, most African audiences simply couldn't believe that Africans (with the exception of [Ousmane] Sembene) could make films that expressed their own imagination. When Night of Counting the Years was showing at festivals it was a major revelation for lots of people... An Egyptian film about what a contemporary, alienated Egyptian subject does with his or her history seemed like a major revelation to me. I admired it enormously.
- John Akomfrah, 'Dream Aloud', Sight & Sound, 9/95
In 1970 there appeared from, of all countries, Egypt, a film which, just as surely as did Pather Panchali, announced the appearance of a major new filmmaker. This was The Night of Counting the Years, completed by Shadi Abdelsalam under difficulties very similar to those experienced by Satyajit Ray nearly twenty years earlier - indifference, jealousy and official opposition. Had it not been for the vigorous pressures exercised by Roberto Rossellini (to whom Abdelsalam pays generous tribute in his credit titles), this film might never have reached the screen.
From its opening sequence of the experts in conference under shaded lights around a baize table, with Mario Nascimbene's eerily appropriate music - a succession of long held chords - backing the archaeologists' talk, The Night of Counting the Years moves with absolute assurance of purpose and total command of technique. Abdel Aziz Fahmy's colour photography, whether of the dark cave interiors or of the shattering light contrasts of the desert and the river and the rocky hills, is of the highest order, and the direction of a fine cast led by the young and talented Ahmed Marei is magisterial. And, in addition to Nascimbene's score, the soundtrack is marvellous - lacerated by the desert winds, dozing in the lapping of the great river, and urgent with the constant, insistent bird songs amid the gigantic ruins.
The story is set at the end of the 19th century and is based on fact. A tribe has for years been living on the proceeds of grave robberies from a vast mountain cave into which many mummies of the Pharaohs had been secretly moved, centuries before, to protect against this very eventuality. After the funeral of their father two boys are initiated into the secret, but are horrified when they see their uncle desecrate one of the mummies and realise that this is the source of their communal prosperity. The elder brother protests and refuses to accept this way of life. To preserve the secret, they murder him. Wanniss, the younger brother, wanders away torn with conflicting thoughts - unstable, anxious, guilty.
The predatory antique-dealers from Cairo (who are only too anxious to doublecross each other) arrive on their annual visit, and approach Wanniss, whom they know to be the heir to the mysterious source of Pharaonic gems. Meantime Wanniss becomes friendly with a young stranger who is looking for a job with the Effendis from the Cairo Museum - an Egyptologist and his mounted police-guard - who have come to try to uncover the thieves.
After a series of intrigues the young stranger gets beaten up. Wanniss makes up his mind that he cannot countenance his tribe's and his family's sacrilegious way of life. He confronts the chief Cairo dealer and says he is going to blow the gaff. For this he is in his turn badly beaten. Nevertheless, he approaches in fear and trembling the great, brightly lit, effendi steamboat, is admitted aboard, and tells the whole story. The hoard is found by the Egyptologists, and they decide to remove the mummies to the boat at once. There ensues a fantastic pre-dawn procession across the rocky crags and down to the river; and the film ends with Wanniss alone, bloodstained, shivering in misery on the banks of the Nile. He has lost his family and his tribe. He is of no further interest to the Effendis sailing off back to Cairo in their shining vessel with their precious finds. His small figure wanders slowly away as the wash of the steamer slaps lazily against the reeds on the river bank in the foreground. Justice has been done, but not to him.
All this is unfolded by Abdelsalam in a slow, majestic, hieratic pace which in other hands might be unbearable, but under his discipline is both thrilling and suspenseful. The moments of crisis and action, which occur without warning and are often underplayed or truncated in mid-movement, come on us as shockingly as those in Gertrud (q.v.). In one particular instance, the beating up of Wanniss is cut off almost as soon as it has begun, and we are switched to a shot of him lying spreadeagled, unconscious and alone on the sand; the shot is taken vertically from above and from a considerable height, and the effect is shattering, not least since in this flat location by the river the shot seems a physical impossibility and therefore has an almost supernatural quality.
- Basil Wright, The LongView, St Albans, 1976
The reception of Shadi Abdelsalam's Egyptian film parallels, in some respects, that of Ray's first film Pather Panchali in Bengal. Both artists made a sudden breakaway from the hidebound traditions of their local industries and both incurred envy and bureaucratic interference. Abdelsalam was originally an art director - he worked on Cleopatra and Kawalerowicz's Pharaoh; and, helped and encouraged by Rossellini, especially in matters of laboratory facilities in Rome, his feature was something of an act of faith. The result is both uncompromising and entirely personal... The director has evoked the spirit of Ancient Egypt through a narrative (based on fact) which concentrates on the moral dilemma of the tribe's younger members: after disclosing the secret of the tombs to the men from Cairo, the young man wanders away disconsolate and broken, and fearful of the wrath he may have called upon himself.
Throughout the film the brooding past is evoked through marvellous architectural backgrounds of rock-faces, underground passages, and the tombs themselves, where half-seen figures gather and scurry away like black garbed phantoms. The uneasy atmosphere, with its series of muted, unresolved encounters between the tribesmen and the 'effendi' from Cairo, is intriguing enough, yet the film's most startling achievement lies in its visual styling. Using pin-sharp deep focus effects and a richly varied colour scheme ranging from the deep blacks of the women's robes to the heady brightness of the desert scenes, Abdelsalam's imagery has a Mizoguchi-like intensity and plastic richness. Indeed, the Japanese director is eloquently recalled in the motif of the river-boat, shiny and mysterious in the distance and illuminated by the torches in the night.
The almost wordless final sequence as the mummies are removed from the tombs by the archaeologists and transported down the mountains to the sea is film-making of the highest order: the tribe stand silently watching, uncertain what action to take; guards on horseback ride menacingly along the seashore; the dawn slowly rises, as the boat - heavy, with its precious load - edges its way out of sight... With this film, a new director of international standing has arrived.
- John Gillett, Monthly Film Bulletin, 5/72