After graduating in 1977 from the Architectural Institute in Almaty, Nugmanov enrolled at the prestigious Moscow State Film Institute (VGIK), the world's first institute of cinematography in 1984. His debut film, "Igla" (English title: The Needle), released in 1989 and starring Victor Tsoi was one of the first films to break the taboo against talking about drug addiction in the former Soviet Union. The film was released in the USSR with 1,000 prints in circulation and became a box office hit viewed by over 30 million cinemagoers. The film was also a critical success, winning First Prize at the Nuremberg Film Festival and initiating the "Kazakh New Wave". He declared, in 1990 , the motto of the New Wave of Kazakh cinema:"We demand no unified philosophy nor uniform artistic views on art. We are unified, instead, in our freedom and love of art". Nougmanov served as President of the Union of Kazakh Filmmakers from 1989 until 1992, when he wrote, directed and produced Diki Vostok (The Wild East), a post-apocalyptic punk samurai Ostern which attracted international acclaim at film festivals from Venice to Los Angeles to Tokyo, and was awarded the Prix Special du Jury in Valenciennes, France. The film marked the end of both the Kazakh New Wave and Nugmanov's active directorial career, although he continued to write screenplays throughout the 1990s.
Nugmanov moved to Paris, France in 1993 and currently serves as the General Director of the International Freedom Network, a London-based think tank created to foster democracy in the former Soviet Union. A harsh critic of the political regime of Nursultan Nazarbaev, which he has decried as a mafia, Nugmanov has been responsible for the international relations of dissident organisations including the Forum for Democratic Forces of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, Republican People's Party of Kazakhstan, Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, and For a Just Kazakhstan.