This New Zealand tale of poultry pageantry details an obscure hobby with both humour and sobriety
Each year chicken, bantam, pigeon and assorted other bird enthusiasts gather at a national convention in Oamaru, New Zealand to decide whose creatures are the best looking of all. The birds are defined by their apparent health, size and qualities such as the arrangement of feathers or the lengths of beaks and talons. Throughout the year members gather at their local clubs to discuss their poultry and ways to improve their chances at local and regional competitions.
Pecking Order focuses around the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club, which as it approaches its 150th anniversary is mired in crisis. As the club shrinks due to members dying of old age, there is a divide between chairman Doug, of the older generation, and a desire for the younger Mark to take over. As the film progresses the politics of the club become surprisingly fiery, and it becomes clear a soft coup (or should I say coop) is underway.
Chickens are rarely considered beautiful creatures, but the attention given to the prime specimens in Pecking Order can redefine a creature often dismissed as a barely sentient foodstuff. The love for competiton is clear throughout the film, and that there may not be enough younger enthusiasts for the bird shows to be continuing in twenty years is quietly tragic.
An irony in Pecking Order is the fine line between a bird of beauty and one that can ‘go in the pot’. One of the film’s more wryly funny moments is Doug eating KFC at the national show after-party.
There are a few moments when the comedy is overdone, such as an opening depicting an egg as the world in a 2001 -style pastiche. While the politics of the club are surprisingly involving, something about the club’s history would have been a welcome addition to the film. There is also too much of following subjects around their acreage while they spout off and some of the key discussions at the club occur off-camera, which only adds to talking heads and further visual repetition.
Both this film and director Slavko Martinov’s previous documentary Propaganda is the blurring of lines between documentary and fiction made to look like documentary, ‘mockumentary’. In the case of Pecking Order, it focuses on real people but also follows a narrative modelled on mockumentary Best In Show, focusing on differences within the community and love for the animals as a national show approaches.
What sets Pecking Order apart is there is little attempt to deride its subjects. This is not a cruel film, and while such moments as a judge insisting that his own book New Zealand Poultry Standards is a ‘book everyone should have’ do invite ridicule all they ultimately show is a dedication to the craft.
This is a commendable work which while exhibiting rare moments of great drama or high comedy, manages to connect an audience to people and fowl that could have been so easily overlooked or roundly mocked.