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Pop CultureJune 10, 2019

Review: Pecking Order proves not all is fair in love and war and chickens

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Director Slavko Martinov brings his eye for social critique to Christchurch’s Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club in the dramatic, uplifting flockumentary Pecking Order.

“There’s a big difference between backyard poultry and exhibiting,” says Beth Inwood, the treasurer of Christchurch’s Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club. I have no idea what “backyard poultry” is, but over the course of Pecking Order I will learn more than I ever needed to about the literally cutthroat world of chicken exhibiting.

“This Columbian rooster, he’s got too much black on him,” says one breeder, pointing at a spritely young cock with some strong black tail feathers. “He’ll end up a pot-roaster, probably.”

“This chicky isn’t well,” says another, reaching into a coop and plucking out the offending bird. “All I can do is send him to chicky heaven.” She holds a small pair of scissors to its throat, and the camera cuts away.

The politics of the club are casually morbid, too. Beth is the widow of Noel Inwood, who was president of the club from 2001-2011. The two of them ruled together over a peaceful, prosperous era. According to the remaining members of the club, the fight for presidency following his death was tense. It still is. Martinov follows incumbent president Doug Bain’s struggle to keep the club and, later, his dignity as much as he follows the actual chicken pageants.

Doug Bain on the edge.

The year he spent documenting the word of competitive bird breeding is largely chicken-focussed, but also delves briefly into ducks and darkly into pigeons. The award-winning film is a heartwarming, rib-tickling slice of life that puts a feathery spin on Best in Show.

The club in-fighting and drama is half the appeal of Martinov’s work; the other half is the contagious love these people have for their birds. A boy, the proto-mulleted Rhys Lilley, is as passionate about chickens as his father Mark, the club’s vice-president. “I’m quite a competitive boy,” says Rhys. Despite his demure countenance, he’s clearly thirsty for the glory of a win. Early on, this kid demonstrates a lust for success that can only be sated by the national pageant.

Rhys Lilley, Mark Lilley, and a chicken.

Young Rhys giving his chicken a bubble bath in the middle of the night is one of the most touching scenes in New Zealand’s cinematic history. Mark is in charge of blow-drying. No two people have ever loved a bird so much. The white rooster is softly chook-chook-chooking. “Tell us all about it,” Mark jokes fondly.

By the time the competitions begin to roll around, we’ve seen the hard work and love that has been poured into these birds. The chickens are moved behind trees, to keep the wind off their feathers; they’re taken indoors to stop them from being sun-damaged; they’re preened and glossed up and ready to strut. “It’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?” Honestly, it is.

The local and regional shows are dangerous enough: sabotage, poisoning, mud-slinging. Bain calls the entire club a bunch of “want-to-bes,” and Mark Lilley a “pet boy” and “puppet”. Karen (allegedly) calls Dawber a “shithead.” A man tells Bain the club “turned to shit when Noel died,” right to his face. You fear the tensions that will rise at the national level.

Younger members of the club just want everyone to get along, and help them with their future in bird rearing. “There actually aren’t that many people interested in chickens, when you think about it,” says teenager Sarah Bunton. Birds of a feather should flock together. “Be good,” she whispers to little Zelda, kissing her on the head before putting her in the cage for showing.

Sarah with Zelda and another, unnamed chicken.

The first day of the national competition is for “penning”, which means letting the birds calm down a bit. All that travel is stressful. “I’ve got a Buff Orpington drake in there, and he’s just absolutely gutted to be here,” says a North Island breeder about the Oamaru setting. The Oamaru poultry club chapter also includes canaries.

Judges – two controversially flown in from Australia – start each bird at 100 points and deduct for imperfections. One bird is too wide, one is too light-coloured, one is “not nearly frizzled enough”; there are 450-500 birds in the “Fancy Bantams” section alone. The competition is stiff.

I won’t spoil the winners. By this point in the film you’ll be heavily invested; let’s just say that the overly-ambitious Rhys Lilley may never be happy. The final, most glorious award is given out in front of a frothing crowd. “I can’t find anything to fault with this fowl,” says the judge of the Best Bird in New Zealand. Neither can I. It’s beautiful.

Winners – birds, breeders, and club presidents alike – are all well-deserved by the end of the film, but the real winner was the love of birds we had all along. “Horrendous, the cost,” laughs breeder Brian Glassey, framed by chicken coops on all sides. “But what else would you spend it on?”

You can watch Pecking Order on TVNZ on Demand right here.

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