It is no secret that I love chickens and so when I learned that Sydney Film Festival had programmed Chicken People — a documentary all about people who love chickens— I knew I had to see it. Chicken People did not disappoint. Following the lives of three chicken lovers as they prepare for the Ohio National Poultry Show, the film is a rare delight (rare because chickens and chicken lovers are not commonly subjects of feature films; other notable chicken films include Mark Lewis’ The Natural History of the Chicken, 2001 and the up-and-coming Pecking Order, a New Zealand documentary that is also about the world of competitive chicken shows).
First we meet Brian Knox – an engineer of monster tractors who moonlights as a chicken breeder. He can recall not just the faces of the hundreds of chickens he has bred, but also their lineages, and he breeds chickens with the precision that Gregor Mendel likely devoted to his peas. His approach is one in stark contrast to that of Shari McCullough: a stay-at-home mother who found that breeding chickens was a way to distract herself from drinking too much. Their differing attitudes are reflective even in the type of chickens they choose to breed. Brian spends his days trying to perfect the intricate patterns of the Wyandotte chicken, agonising over the relative sharpness of each black-outlined feather. Shari, on the other hand, breeds the whimsical and rather ridiculous-looking Silkie chicken. Its eyes forever obscured its characteristic crop of fluff, the Silkie chicken is both mysterious (can it even see?) and exotic (it has black skin and turquoise blue earlobes).
The final member of the trio is Brian Caraker, a musical theatre star who jeopardises his day job so that he can attend the Ohio National. Like Brian Knox and Shari, breeding chickens acts as both an outlet and obsession for him. He has enjoyed the company of the chickens since he was very young, a welcome escape from bullies in the schoolyard. But his obsession also drives him to make personally compromising choices. He is fired from his job because he has to skip two performances to attend a chicken show, and much of the chicken care, which can be physically gruelling, falls to his doting elderly parents, who he is adamant are not “chicken people” like himself. Brian Knox too has sacrificed his personal life for his chicken obsession. He has no time for personal relationships. It is both tragic and ironic that even his relationship with a fellow “chicken person” did not work out. His sincere telling of this failed relationship is both touching and poignant , forcing the audience to question if these people’s ongoing obsessions with chickens is perhaps escapism from the adult world disguised as some kooky avocation.
Chicken People is directed and produced by Nicole Lucas Haimes, who cut her teeth in the world of news. Notably, it is also produced by Christopher Clements, executive producer of last year’s outstanding Weiner. Just as Weiner begins as a study of a politician and evolves into a more pointed case study of narcissism, so too Chicken People shifts in focus; ostensibly a documentary about the world of competitive chicken shows, it succeeds most as a documentary about the nature of obsession. Bridging the gap between “non-chicken people” and “chicken people”, Haines chooses not to approach the competition in terms of jargon or information: it’s wholly emotive.There are no voiceovers in Chicken People and when explanations are needed the answers are offered pictorially. Even in the film’s more conventional talking head interview sequences — with other “chicken people” shot against bright, monochromatic backdrops — we don’t follow a standard approach: we are brought in, as though mid-conversation, and it is only after hearing a few answers that we are able to work out the question. All of this lends the film a sense of authenticity; the viewer becomes less like a chicken competition voyeur and more like a member of the community.
What is disappointing about Chicken People is that it devotes surprisingly little time to the chickens themselves. From the film’s outset, we learn about how to judge a good chicken using the American Standards of Perfection. This information proves useless to us; we see some close-up glamour shots of show chickens, but it is not enough. By the final show, the camera skips over rows and rows of show chickens, and does not even bother lingering on the Grand Champion chicken – a magnificent Sumatra.1 Nevertheless, as a quirky and unique film about quirky and unique characters, Chicken People is sure to entertain.