Who would have thought that the world of competitive poultry pageantry would be so fraught with tension and make such a fascinating and funny documentary? Like a real life version of the mockumentary Best in Show but about chickens, Pecking Order focuses on members of the Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club as it approaches its 150th anniversary.
The documentary begins as a genuinely sympathetic, wryly humorous look at the lives of the people involved in the New Zealand club as they prepare for the national poultry show. There are some brilliant real-life characters here, such as toothless single man Brian, who admits to being too obsessed with his chooks to ever find a partner, and 14-year-old Rhys, who’s been entering competitions for the last five years and admits that he’s “a bit different” to his peers. Everyone in this film revels in their eccentricities and their passion for poultry, but it never feels like director Slavko Martinov is poking fun at them or using them to score cheap laughs.
What starts out as a simple slice of life in this rural community, however, takes a new and unexpected turn when there’s a bit of drama at the club that threatens to bring it crashing down. Sitting president Doug, who has been showing poultry for 50 years, is clearly struggling to keep up with the times. There’s something touching and sad about seeing Doug try to cling on to power as he struggles to keep up with the minutes of the club meetings, let alone the 21st century.
Waiting in the wings is gentle and shy Mark, who is keen not to step on anyone’s toes but who knows change has to come if the club is to survive. As some members of the club try to stage a coup and push Mark into the role, other members sense a power vacuum and jump right in to the president’s chair.
Arguments follow. Doug raises his voice and shouts at fellow club members (this is about as dramatic as the film gets in terms of action). Those pesky pigeon fanciers might well gain the seat of power and challenge the established order of things. It gets quite gripping for a moment as it’s clear that the club needs to change in order to attract new, younger members.
Ultimately though, this is a joyful film about the simple pleasures, tribulations and triumphs of working-class rural life in a part of the world we rarely get to see. And it’s about the chickens. Who knew there were so many breeds and also quite how beautiful they could be? The sight of them being paraded through the streets of a small town to the sound of bagpipes is one which will stay with you long after this remarkable little film ends.
Pecking Order is in cinemas from 29 September
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