Gatlif struggled for years to break into the film industry, playing in several theatrical productions until directing his first film, La Tête en ruine, in 1975. He followed it with the 1979 La Terre au ventre, a story of the Algerian War of Independence.
Since the 1981 film Corre, gitano, Gatlif's work has been focused on the Romani people of Europe, from whom he partially traces his descent.
After making Gaspard et Robinson in 1990, Gatlif spent 1992 and 1993 shooting Latcho Drom, which was awarded numerous prizes. A year later, Gatlif brought the world of the author J. M. G. Le Clézio to the screen in Mondo (1994).
His 2004 film Exils, won the Best Director Award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. His film Transylvania also premiered at Cannes in May 2006.