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The Night of Counting the Years (1969)

One of the greatest Egyptian films of all time is not available on DVD – but you can see it here.

As an anonymous critic at the website Public Domain Movies notes, “Egyptian critics consistently list The Night of Counting the Years (also known as The Mummy) as one of the most important Egyptian films, and perhaps the most important one, but it remains largely unknown, both within Egypt and elsewhere, despite winning a number of awards at European film festivals. Directed by Shadi Abdel Salam in 1969, it was his first feature film, after a long career directing experimental short films, and was selected as the Egyptian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 43rd Academy Awards.

Set in 1881, on the eve of British colonial rule, it is based on a true story: an Upper Egyptian clan had been robbing a cache of mummies near the village of Qurna, and selling the artifacts on the black market. After a conflict within the clan, one of its members went to the police, helping the Antiquities Service find the cache of stolen goods. While this is the nominal plot of the film, it is much more interested in establishing a sense of the past, and embracing cultural history, than in the advancement of a narrative structure.

The film casts this story in terms of the search for an authentic, lost Egyptian national identity (represented by the neglected and misunderstood artifacts of ancient Egyptian civilization), but the conflict between city and countryside suggests questions that are not resolved in the film, making it an ambiguous, unsettling reflection on the price of identity. Unusual camera angles, striking colors and slow editing give the film a dreamlike quality, reinforced by Mario Nascimbene‘s trance like music. For those who know Arabic, the dialogue is entirely in classical Arabic, which adds to the film’s sense of timelessness.”

As Wikipedia notes of the director’s career, “Shadi Abdel Salam was an Egyptian film director, screenwriter and costume and set designer. Born in Alexandria on 15 March 1930, Shadi graduated from Victoria College, Alexandria, 1948, and then moved to England to study theater arts from 1949 to 1950. He then joined faculty of fine arts in Cairo where he graduated as an architect in 1955. He worked as assistant to the artistic architect, Ramsis W. Wassef, 1957, and designed the decorations and costumes of some of the most famous historical Egyptian films, [and] taught at the Cinema Higher Institute of Egypt in the Departments of Decorations, Costumes and Film Direction from 1963–1969. He died on 8 October 1986.” This film remains his only feature length work.

I’ve seen the film projected in 35mm format on a number of occasions, and it’s one of my very favorite films – absolutely dreamlike in its construction, slow and meditational, but with an enormous presence in every single frame. Now, although the film is still unavailable in a full-quality HD DVD, there is at least a YouTube video version of the film with English and Spanish subtitles, which you can view by clicking here, or on the image above. The best way to watch the film would be to stream it to your television, and get carried away by the intensity of the imagery.

The Night of Counting The Years is a brilliant film, which absolutely should be on DVD.

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About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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