Art and culture

‘Crip Camp’ Director Teams WIth NBC News Studios on Tunnel 29 Doc

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Nicole Newnham (“Crip Camp”) is at work on her next documentary — “Tunnel 29,” about a secret escape tunnel built under the Berlin Wall in 1962.

The film, co-produced by NBC News Studios and Story Force Entertainment, will chronicle the story of a group of students who risked their lives and defied the Iron Curtain by digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall, enabling 29 East Germans to escape to the West.

“‘Tunnel 29’ will cinematically immerse the audience in the fraught and tense time when the world grappled with the trauma and consequences of the Wall and the Cold War — a time that bears an astonishing resemblance to today,” says Newnham.

In the early 1960s, German students began digging a tunnel more than the length of a football field from West to East Berlin. As danger and setbacks mounted, they sought funding to continue the dig and help ensure their safety. In 1962, NBC News producer Reuven Frank (creator of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report”) came to the rescue when he struck a deal for exclusive rights to covertly film the excavation and escape. The tunnelers would use the funds from NBC to complete their mission. But once their mission was over, NBC faced unexpected opposition from the Kennedy administration, which feared broadcasting a documentary about the covert mission on national television could provoke a military conflict with the Soviet Union. Under mounting pressure from the White House, NBC scrapped its original air date for its 90-minute special before ultimately broadcasting “The Tunnel” in December 1962. The doc would go on to earn three Emmy awards, including program of the year.

“Tunnel 29” will feature never before seen NBC-owned 16 millimeter black and white film reels shot for the original doc special on the tunnel, as well as Cold War contextual archival footage from the era.

“Increasingly over the course of my career, I have gotten more and more obsessed with archival films and how you can use archival to simultaneously create an immersive cinematic universe that brings people back into history, but at the same time, embed a meta story of what the archive itself is and the importance of that,” says Newnham.

In addition to using archival footage, the doc will include interviews with surviving tunnelers and eyewitnesses who will reveal the story of how the tunnel succeeded without detection, while examining the political realities of the Cold War era.

NBC News Studios head of documentary Molly O’Brien says that the network has wanted to develop the Tunnel 29 story for a long time.

“It’s a story that has been legendary here at 30 Rock but we couldn’t figure our way into the doc,” says O’Brien. “What Nicole and Story Force came up with was this character driven story that’s also a thriller. So, audiences will be on the edge of their seats and that is the take that we wanted to go with.”

Although “Tunnel 29,” which is currently in pre-production, takes place more than 60 years ago, O’Brien is sure that it will resonate with audiences.

“The film chronicles an unusual story about digging a tunnel under the Berlin Wall but the themes of wanting to live in a free democratic society are very much present in our modern conversation and the conversations that we’re having with one another today,” she says. “So, it’s a very zeitgeisty and historical project.”

Since forming in early 2020, NBC News Studios has become a key player in the documentary space. Recent docus includes, Newnham’s “The Disappearance of Shere Hite,” Julie Cohen’s “Every Body” and Dawn Porter’s “The Way I See It.” Studios is currently collaborating with Porter and Errol Morris on two upcoming docus.

O’Brien explains that in the last four years the division has grown into a company that can compete with other top-tier docu production hubs.

“We now have the apparatus and the systems built in so that we can effectively partner with premium top of the class directors and producers,” says O’Brien. “It’s exciting to be part of this new business that is using the assets of this legacy news organization with a different set of directors and producers out there who can really add their point of view and their directorial vision to the stories and IP that (NBC) has been producing and collecting for decades.”

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