Born in Asmara, Eritrea. After attending university in Italy, in 1985 he moves to New York and graduates from the New York University Film School. Following a journey to India, he produces and directs his first documentary film, Boatman, screened with success at various international film festivals
including the Sundance Film Festival, the Locarno Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival.

In 2008, Below Sea Level, shot in Slab City, California, wins the Orizzonti Award at the Venice Film Festival.
The film also wins the Grand Prix and the Prix des Jeunes at the Cinéma du Réel festival in 2009, the prize for Best Documentary at the One World Film Festival in Prague, the Vittorio De Seta prize at the Bifest 2009 for the Best Documentary and was nominated as best documentary at the European Film Awards in 2009.

In 2010, he shoots the feature  El Sicario – Room 164, a film-interview about a killer turned informer from the Mexican drug cartels and wins the Fipresci Award at the Venice International Film Festival and the Doc/It prize as the best documentary of the year. It also won Best Film at DocLisboa in 2010 and
at Doc Aviv in 2011.

In 2013, he makes the documentary feature, Sacro Gra, that wins the Golden Lion at the Venice International Film Festival the same year. His new documentary, Fuocoammare, wins the Golden Bear at the Berlinale 2016