Chahine directed his first film, Baba Amin, in 1950, when Egypt was still a British colony. He second, Son of the Nile (1951), was invited to compete in Cannes, and over the following three decades he averaged more than a film a year, ranging from musicals and comedies to neorealist dramas, historical epics, self-portraits and a documentary. Chahine discovered Omar Sharif in a Cairo cafe, and gave him his first acting role in Blazing Sky (1953), as a peasant farm engineer fighting the injustices of a feudal landlord. Jamila, the Algerian (1958) adapted Jacques Vergès' book about the Algerian resistance fighter Djamila Bouhired, shortly after her torture and trial by the French.
Chahine's artistic breakthrough came in another film made the same year. Cairo Station distilled the tumult of General Nasser's new republic into an explosive love triangle between three working denizens of the city's bustling railway hub. Chahine, who had trained as an actor, himself played Qinawi, the lame and simple-minded newspaper boy whose frustrated desire for a flirty lemonade girl is fanned into tragedy; according to the director's own reminiscences in An Egyptian Story (1982), he was set to receive the Best Actor prize from the Berlin Film Festival, but some of the jury members doubted that he was merely acting the part of a cripple. Egyptian audiences weren't ready for the film's lively mix of neorealism, noir, sexuality and musical set-pieces, either, and Cairo Station went largely unseen for 20 years. (British audiences were treated to a re-release in 2002, and the film still looks groundbreaking. Evidently the flame of neorealism was blowing into shores much further afield than just France in 1958.)
Saladin (1963), a project Chahine inherited, proposed the 12th-century sultan's defence of Jerusalem against the Christian Crusaders as an epic allegory of Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism, though the Catholic Chahine and his leftist writers also cast Saladin as a paragon of peace and religious tolerance. Chahine's relationship with the post-colonial authorities soon turned more critical, however. Once Upon a Time the Nile (1968-78), a documentary of the construction of the Aswan Dam, was delayed for four years by its Egyptian and Soviet sponsors after Chahine steered away from their charter of national myth-making towards a portrait of the dam's impact on individual lives. The Choice (1970) was a murder mystery that suggested Egypt's growing intellectual schisms in the wake of the calamitous Six Day War – a defeat for which The Sparrow (1973) laid the blame squarely on corruption in the political establishment. Sadat's government duly banned the film for two years.
Chahine's ability to link the personal and political took another step forward with his autobiographical Alexandria quartet, named after the cosmopolitan city of his birth. Alexandria… Why? (1978) recounted the filmmaking dreams of his teenage alter ego, Yehia, amidst the ambivalently received German occupation of Cairo in 1942: while locals are kidnapping British soldiers, or promising them that "Hitler will turn you into bellydancers", Yehia is dreaming of directing MGM musicals, and various illicit passions flare up between a Jew and a Muslim communist, Yehia's uncle and a young British soldier. It too was widely banned.
After a stress-induced sabbatical and open-heart surgery, Chahine dramatised the operation as a trial of Yehia's life in An Egyptian Story (1982), his most Fellini-esque film: accused by his conscience of betraying his youthful idealism, he reviews relationships and career milestones against the backdrop of Egypt's post-war metamorphoses. 1990's Alexandria Again and Forever (1990) was a musical fantasy in which the entire Egyptian film industry goes on hunger strike for democracy; the Yehia character's fantasies within the film about a young protege actor were Chahine's most forthright illustration of his own bisexuality.
Chahine continued to resist borders wherever the world raised them. His story of the biblical Joseph, The Emigrant (1994), was censored in Egypt for idolatry – representing a prophet. Chahine responded with the prescient Destiny (1997), a sensualist celebration of the Spanish-Arabian scholar Avarroes (or Ibn Rushd), and his struggles against power-mongering politicians and murderous fundamentalists in 12th-century Moorish Andalusia. It ends with a massive book-burning, and the defiant motto "Ideas have wings. No-one can stop their flight."
Alexandria ... New York (2004) brought Chahine's alter ego Yehia back to America, half a century after his first visit as a wide-eyed acting student. He finds a lost son, but the promise of the American Dream, and the charm of classical Hollywood, seem sorely mislaid.
His last movie, Chaos, returned to scrutinising contemporary Cairo. A burlesque about police brutality and bad education, it excoriates Egypt's autocracy for its choke-hold on civil society, and the country's sybaritic elite for abandoning the cause of democracy. The film was released in late 2007 – shooting was completed by Khaled Youssef, Chahine's recent co-writer, when Chahine fell ill – and it plainly anticipates this year's food riots. Islamic fundamentalists also feature in Chaos, but for Chahine the equation is simple: injustice is the incubator of violence.
Chahine's films have been released piecemeal on DVD in France and the US, but (with the exception of his contribution to the portmanteau movie 11'09"01 – September 11) never in Britain. They still await their wings.
This article was first published on guardian.co.uk on Monday July 28 2008.