Director: Slavko Martinov
Starring: Doug Bain, Sarah Bunton, Bob Dawber, Brian Glassey, Brett Hawker, Mark Lilley, Rhys Lilley, Clint O’Brien, Ian Selby, Marina Steinke
Release Date: September 29 2017
This documentary, or “flockumentary”, by Slavko Martinov focuses on the aspirations of and intricate dynamics between the members of Christchurch Poultry and Pigeon Club. This group of “chook” enthusiasts (that’s Kiwi for chicken) are all after as many first prizes as they can get with their chickens.
If you are looking for a warmth-inducing tale with witty and weighty dialogue, top-level humour that is an endless source of potential inside jokes, or a solid pitch for a new pursuit in life, Pecking Order is just the thing for you.
We meet a range of characters that only get more intriguing as you find out more about them and one of their, if not their biggest, love in life: chickens. Not (just) eating them, but breeding them, raising them, grooming them and presenting them – all in hope of snatching coveted first prizes at local shows and, most importantly, the New Zealand National Show. It’s a lot to take in. Most people do not give a second thought to chicken unless it’s covered in sauce on a plate. Martinov himself got fascinated when he came across a stall selling organic chicken feed and wondering who buys it. Now we all know.
Those of us who spend slightly less time in hen houses might even be inclined to judge how carefully they inspect their chickens’ feathers and tails, how ruthlessly they approach choosing the best chicks to raise or how much of their lives they invest into this endeavour in general. However, you see how much joy it brings to the banty buffs and how much disappointment comes to the surface when they face challenges, and you realise that the farm fowl aficionados are no different to any of us that have found something to obsess over and let it overtake our lives. They just chose chickens and by the end of the documentary, you might just want to do the same.
It’s not all that simple though. The poultry is only the beginning and pigeons are another story entirely. The Christchurch Poultry and Pigeon Club is the oldest in New Zealand, and while its enthusiasts all agree on how tantalising their shared activity is, they often disagree on everything else that comes with running any sort of organisation. You meet intense figures like Doug the president who is a man of stoic conviction, Mark who is reserved but ready to take action if need be, Marina who is not afraid to let her feelings be known on any club matters, and many others. You also meet a number of younger members, the club’s best hope for carrying on the pass-time’s torch and the existence of the club. Rivalries for prizes are only the beginning. Inside politics threaten this group and push the documentary to be about more than just chickens – it’s equally or even more so about the people who raise them.
Martinov does not make fun of any of this though. He recorded the exchanges between members and group communications in such a way as if you are just another person at the meetings, observing the tensions present. There are even moments when the cameras are not permitted to film. This allows us to see just how much this all means to the members and makes us really sympathise with their challenges. Will their club survive? Will they ever find common ground after hurtful things were said and done? If the club survives, what is its future? The film implores us to ask questions like this. You will probably learn more about chickens than ever before, but you will also witness a story that has been bubbling under the surface for a long time and now has nowhere to go but boil over. This is relatable to many of us that have ever been part of a group dynamic. Novel subject matter aside, we see that people still behave like people.
The climactic third act is a satisfying conclusion to the story, although many viewers will likely want to know what happens next. We follow those were introduced to in the beginning right through to their triumphs and shortcomings, as well as their final political club positions, and subsequent reactions. If you have not been put off by the level of obsession and chicken-themed education, and actually let yourself invest some feeling into this journey, you will come out intrigued and fulfilled. Maybe even consider breeding a rooster or seven.
The overarching story of club politics pulls you in and humanises this telling further than just a hobby involving chickens, building a compelling sense of attachment to it. It’s a grounded, solid documentary that is so much more than you go in expecting it to be.