On 16 December 1969, The Mummy was shown for the first time to the audience of the Cairo Film Club, which included many intellectuals. In the dark, Shadi Abdel Salam waited for the reaction of his family and friends to this new work of art. All were moved by the film’s sober technique and by its theme, which was deeply touching for Egyptians: a sacred theme presented in a new form – the language of film – and accompanied by the sincerity that’s in harmony with this people.
The filmmaker had first read the story about the hiding place of the royal mummies of Deir al-Bahari in 1956, after his graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts. It had remained in his memory until the day when, thanks to his job as artistic adviser for the film Pharaoh by the Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz in 1963, this project was born. The Mummy’s long journey began. He was impressed by the mummies’ defiance of time and their journey from one tomb to another, eventually ending up in the Egyptian Museum. This raised the question of Ancient Egypt’s immortality and gave concrete expression to the idea that the preservation of names and bodies was a national safeguard rather than a material one.
In 1965, Abdel Salam completed the first version of the script for The Mummy, titled And They Were Buried a Second Time... It was the application of theories he had been studying for years. However, he decided to abandon this first draft and start over, this time based on his own emotions and ideas. He was surprised by the result, which was both romantic and melodramatic. He abandoned this version too. Then he had a third try at the script. This time, the result came out differently. In the first two versions, the main character was the “stranger” – for whom he had written a forty-line poem – whereas in the last version it was Wanis, as in the film. He wasn’t satisfied with this third version either, since it contained many events and details that trivialized it and turned it into a depressing individual story.
After a short break, he resumed work on the script in the form of a poem, or what we could call poetic prose, according to Paul Valéry’s concept. The film finally began to take shape, and the characters began to hold their importance, not as reflections of reality but as symbols.
When he collaborated with Rossellini in 1966 – who had come to Egypt to shoot an episode of Man’s Struggle for Survival – Abdel Salam made him read his script. The Italian filmmaker, involved in the creation of a centre for experimental cinema and charmed by the subject, considered it material to be developed in the way of auteur cinema.
Shadi Abdel Salam’s cinema was auteur cinema par excellence, which sought to translate his view of the world and of Egyptian identity. The war of 1967 led to the suspension of Rossellini’s project, who left Egypt without finishing the episode he was directing. Nonetheless, Sarwat Okacha decided to begin the production of Abdel Salam’s film. The crew met and rehearsed in the headquarters of the Centre for Cultural Cooperation in Zamalek, which was chaired by Magdi Wahba.
Shadi Abdel Salam had planned to film in black and white, but the officials involved wanted it to be in colour so as to facilitate its distribution. Originally, Shadi had dressed his characters in white tunics. When it was decided that the film would be in colour, he dressed them in black for contrast with the ochre background of desert sand and archaeological remains.
Salah Marei and his assistants started the like-for-like reconstruction of the original sarcophagi. The décor and tomb walls were made in off-set workshops and assembled on location.
Abdel Salam hesitated about which language to use in the film. He opted for classical Arabic, which according to him expresses timelessness, while the Upper Egyptian dialect would have rendered the film too realistic. He also chose unknown actors, whom he recommended to act with restraint by internalizing the conflicts and not looking for easy effect.
Choosing the most important events of the last century as the framework for his story, he gave concrete expression to the words of the pharaonic Book of the Dead. The intention of the film is to evoke the gap between two worlds: the traditional world, embodied by the Horabat tribe, and the modern world, represented by the “Gentlemen from Cairo”. The action of the film takes place over the course of one day. The conflict between these two worlds doesn’t only have negative effects, and Shadi used this to reconstruct the slow development of Egyptian national identity.
The mummies were found eventually, after many centuries. The rift between a population with a rich past and an educated minority is at the heart of his film’s approach. Shadi Abdel Salam wanted to link this glorious past to contemporary Egypt. For the story he tackles in his film is ultimately a search for Egyptian identity and national spirit. Thus ends the story of these mummies and their unique fate: they were saved from looting and buried by the 21st-dynasty priests of Amun. Three thousand years later, the Egyptologist Ahmed Pasha Kamal duped the secret of their hiding place out of the mountain tribes so that, one hundred years later, Shadi Abdel Salam would tell their story, calling for a new century of revival.
This text originally appeared as ‘La Momie’, in Magda Wassef, Salah Marei, ed. Chadi Abdel Salam, le Pharaon du cinéma égyptien (Paris: Librairie Ima, 1996).
With thanks to Magda Wassef.
Milestones: Al-mummia takes place on Thursday 21 January 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.