Payday Report

Will Dunkirk’s Use of Prison Labor in Set Construction Disqualify It from the Oscars?

Prison labor advocates say that Dunkirk's use of prison labor should disqualify it from receiving any Oscars.

This week, the Christopher Nolan-directed epic “Dunkirk” was nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Production Design.

However, prison labor advocates say that “Dunkirk” should be disqualified from receiving any Oscars due to its use of prison labor in constructing sets in France during production in 2016.

In the official “Dunkirk” companion book “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture” by Josh Levine, set decorator Gary Fettis bragged that the use of prison labor in set construction saved the film money.

“The amount of work needed led to some interesting collaborations,” wrote Levine on page 327 of the book, quoting set decorator Fettis. “‘The big fenders on the ships, they use giant rubber balls nowadays, but back then they were made out of rope, woven in thick hemp. We had to make about ten of them.’ They found a Dunkirk man who had re-rigged a ship for a local museum. ‘He knew how to weave these bumpers. And he employed prison labour to make them. First-time offenders, kids, they weren’t hard-core criminals.’”

“I hope the producers know, because we saved a lot of money that way,” Fettis boasted in his comment to Levine, the film’s official historian.

“Dunkirk” is currently the highest grossing World War Two movie of all time, surpassing even the similarly epic “Saving Private Ryan.” The movie had a budget of more than $100 million and has grossed over $525 million so far at the box office, netting a profit in excess of $400 million for the film’s production and distribution companies. 

The use of prison labor in constructing the set has outraged prison labor advocates.

“I don’t think anyone should be using prison slave labor and it needs to be denounced as the human rights abuse it is,” said Human Rights Defense Center Director Paul Wright.

Christopher Nolan’s Syncopy Films Inc. production company did not respond to Payday’s request for comment. Nor did Warner Brothers, its distribution company, which also made a windfall from the film’s success.

Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center said that Dunkirk’s use of prison labor in set construction should disqualify it from receiving any Oscars.

“As far as whether it should disqualify the film from getting an Oscar, I think it should,” he said.  “No one would reward the costume designers who used child slave labor in making the costumes for a movie.”

Wright said that because some actors are being passed over for Oscars due to sexual misconduct, including James Franco for “The Disaster Artist,” it would be fitting that the Academy also snub “Dunkirk” for its use of prison labor in set construction.

“It would seem that, in a consistent world, human rights abusers and exploiters would not be regarded so highly,” said Wright.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not respond to a request for comment about whether the use of prison labor should disqualify “Dunkirk” from receiving an Oscar.

However, Paul Wright of the Human Rights Defense Center isn’t optimistic about “Dunkirk’s” use of prison labor being viewed as a mark against it.

“Since we live in America, I suspect that no one will miss a beat on this because pretty much everybody in a position of power is down with prison slavery. Unless [the prison labor] is being exploited by the Chinese government,” said Wright.

Donate to Payday to help us expose stories that no one else is covering