Competitive Chicken Pageantry Is A Thing, And There’s A Documentary About It

Imagine the Westminster Dog Show, except replace the canines with chickens. That’s competitive poultry pageantry, and it’s a huge phenomenon around the world.

In Hot Docs documentary “Pecking Order” (definitely one of the most clever titles of the festival), filmmaker Slavko Martinov hones in on New Zealand specifically, but makes sure to emphasize that this is a contest — a very serious one, mind you — taking place in numerous countries at any given time.

Jokingly called a “flockumentary,” “Pecking Order” follows the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club, which, from the outside, appears to be on its last cluck. Lots of infighting and power struggles have led to an unsettled group jockeying for position. During the run-up to the 2015 National Poultry Show, tempers are flaring and the club is threatened with disbandment after 148 years of operation.

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Martinov takes a look at some of the older members like Doug Bain, who’s been engaging in bird competitions for nearly his whole life, and who truly feels the club is part of his very soul. He speaks of it like a prize gem, one that needs care and dedication. Martinov also spends some time with the newbies, in this case teenagers who are just starting to understand the addictiveness of chicken pageantry. Young man Rhys Lilley seems destined for greatness in the sport as his chickens take top spot at multiple competitions leading up to the national show.

Global News chatted with Martinov about the surprisingly lively world of chicken pageantry, and what he thinks the future holds for the centuries-old contests.

Global News: How did you find all of these amazing characters? And how did this documentary come to be?
Slavko Martinov: It was a happy accident. I was filming in Melbourne [Australia] for another film, and the character we were following had to go to a craft fair. I met some ladies who sold organic chicken feed, we got to chatting, and they casually mentioned that all the top-rated on the national show circuit bought their feed. I clarified that they meant “best in show” as in chickens, and they said “Yes,” as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

I thought there was a documentary there and started sniffing around thinking, “It would just be Australia,” but it turns out, of course, that competitive poultry shows are everywhere. That’s how it started.

What are the chances that all of these peoples’ stories would be so interesting? How did you find all of these fascinating people?
The strange thing is when you go in, they’re all typically understated, but then the passions take over. The first few meetings I went to at the club as an observer, it took a long time before any of them showed their hand. It was so dry! I mean, painfully so. I thought there was no documentary at all! What I discovered is that’s part of their language, they’re just messing with you and saying the exact opposite of what they really mean.

Also noteworthy is the never-ending politics of the club. It’s so important to them, and many of them were on the verge of tears at the prospect of losing the club, or not being a member anymore.
It’s actually true of so many clubs, because they’re all obsessed with something. [Laughs] Someone said to me, “Oh, you got so lucky you followed that club.” The year before, the same thing had happened to a club down south, and a club up north — one of the strongest, mind you — is splitting up. There are so many clubs involving chickens! [Laughs] It all comes down to politics.

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Were you surprised at all at the competitors’ dedication to the chickens?
I wouldn’t say “surprised,” since people feel strong enough to be in a club about chickens. But when I attended that first meeting, they may as well have been speaking Mandarin. They were talking in specifics about chickens, and I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. It was wild to then find out more about the culture of competitive poultry shows… like they have this thing where they say, “When I retire and get too old to show,” which seems impossible because some of the older ones can barely walk, they just don’t stop. They want to create the perfect bird. They’ll also say, “I know I’m never going to be able to do it, but I’ll die trying.”

They spend their whole lives searching for this ideal bird, but they’ll never find it. Actually, there was one man, who we didn’t end up including in the film — he believed he had the perfect bird.

These kids are just as dedicated, which is impressive considering they’re teenagers.
It’s strange, isn’t it? The teenage girl we have in the film, Sarah… you could have a chicken who was being very temperamental or getting very upset, and she can pick it up, and within seconds, I swear, she could just start touching it a certain way, put it on its back like a cat or a puppy and stroke it, and it would just be completely quiet. She just has a thing with them!

The other thing is how many children could be out there, who’d be into poultry showing… but where to find them? They’re so distracted with so many opportunities in life.

So are you a chicken expert, of sorts, now?
I don’t know if I qualify as an expert… [Laughs] No, but people call me up and ask me about different bird breeds, and I realize now I can name them without thinking twice. After a couple of years, I suppose you can learn anything, but I know now what to look out for. I can tell when a feather is out of place, when I wouldn’t have seen it before.

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What is the future of chicken pageantry?
They hold a strong, steady pageant in countries like Holland, France, Germany and the U.K. In America, too. For New Zealand, because we’re so small, it’s very much dying out. They’re trying so hard to attract new entrants, young ones to get them through… that would really help. Without them, they’re not going to last, which is pretty bad considering it’s the oldest [chicken] club in New Zealand.

The last public screening of ‘Pecking Order’ at Hot Docs takes place on Sat., May 6 at 10 a.m. at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1. Please check the Hot Docs official site for tickets and a complete list of showtimes.

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