As the cavalcade of non-fiction continues here at In The Seats, we take a moment to talk with someone behind one of the more talked about movies of the entire festival. Pecking Order dives us head first into the world of competitive poultry pageantry and it’s an intense world to say the least.
Before it’s last screening this coming Saturday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox I got the chance to sit down with director Slavko Martinov about his experiences of diving into this world that is a lot more intense then you’d ever expect.
Dave Voigt: This is such a unique and surprisingly intense world, how did you initially come across this group and the art of competitive poultry pageantry?
Slavko Martinov: I first discovered competitive poultry pageantry when I was filming a doc in Melbourne, Australia. We were following a character at a craft fair and I noticed two women selling giant bags of very fancy chicken feed. I was curious about who buys it and I got to chatting with them. After a while, they casually mentioned, “oh and all the top breeders on the national show circuit buy it too.” A national show circuit for chickens…?! That’s how this film started. When I returned to New Zealand I checked to see if it existed there or if it was just in Australia. That’s how little I knew about poultry pageantry.
DV: It’s a much more emotional tense film then I ever expected it to be, but that intensity does come from a passion about what these subjects are doing. Were the members of Christchurch Poultry reticent at your presence there (ex. That you might be there to make fun of them) or was everyone ultimately on board with participating in the film?
SM: It’s emotionally intense because it’s basically a film about obsession. And for these people, they just happen to be obsessed about chickens, which I came to understand. Chickens are actually smart, very social and often very affectionate. The club was fine with me being there because I was very transparent about what I was there for and I declare a ‘do no harm’ policy and mean it. I would never make fun of them and I think they understood that. Saying that, as things became heated; there were a couple of times when we were asked to stop filming.
DV: The film really does walk a delicate line, because even though there will be a lot of people out there in your audiences who find it all fairly comical, the film is also very careful to not mock its subjects either. It provides a bit of a window on the human psyche that when you get a bunch of strong willed people together who are passionate about the same thing, it’s easy and shockingly natural for people to really tear at each other and affect the fabric of the collective that they are trying to build. Was this a mission point for you going to highlight aspects like this or was it something you ultimately came across while embedded with the group.
SM: Good question. This was never just going to be the simple story arc of ‘Best in Show’ with chickens. I always look for underlying politics and the power structures at play in relationships. And there were many subtexts to explore: the psychology of competition. How humans decide what the standard for beauty is our paradoxical relationships with animals. So early on, we were quietly watching the connections between people in the club meetings. It took a while for it to emerge. The decades of distrust and resentment were well hidden.
As for the delicate line between good humour and mocking people, it’s interesting to note that the first thing the New Zealand Film Commission said to us when we pitched the idea was, “make sure you don’t make fun of these people.” And we were surprised by that. Why would we? And when we showed a promo to a theatre of people halfway through filming, they all came up to me afterward with the same thing: “it’s hilarious – we can’t wait to see it – but you better not make fun of these people!” I realized then that people see this could easily be them, and their obsessions, on screen. They felt defensive on the characters behalf and I found that very touching. And so I hope audiences see the genuine affection we have for the characters. They’re all very self-aware and like to make fun of themselves.
DV: Are there international poultry shows? Was there any temptation to dive into this universe beyond Christchurch or was the focus always about this 148 year old club?
SM: Well at first I thought we’d be making a film in Australia. That’s how little I knew about it. And yes, most countries have competitive poultry pageantry. The U.S. is huge. There are clubs in Canada. The U.K scene is huge, of course, as Queen Victoria was the one who introduced poultry showing as a way of turning people away from cock fighting. The Dutch have a massive poultry showing fraternity but the really massive scene is in Germany.
DV: Have any of the subjects had a chance to see the film, and if so what have their reactions been like?
SM: They’ve all chosen to see the film together at the premiere in our home city on May 9th. I suggested that might be better because it’ll be fun in a large theatre with the public. Only one of them was worried after seeing the trailer. So I did what I’d offered all of them at any time to allay their fears: come and see the film. They sat there on their own and watched it. And after, they looked a bit shocked (seeing yourself on screen like that is always going to be weird). But they emailed the next day saying they really loved it.
DV: There can be a misconception with non-festival audiences that the documentary form is incapable of being entertaining and is more focused behind the facts whatever story is trying to be told. I firmly believe that Pecking Order does both in spades and provides a highly enjoyable look at a unique slice of life while still giving us some glances at how it all might apply to our daily lives, be it in the city or on a farm. As a storyteller how important is it for you to be able to still convey a certain message to the audience while never sacrificing on pure entertainment value?
SM: Thanks for seeing all of the layers in this film and raising this issue. I think it was Michael Moore who stated a couple of years ago that filmmakers needed to get it into their heads that we’re primarily in the entertainment business. He’s right. And you don’t have to lose any of your ideals or integrity in the process. In fact, it’s a terrific challenge, telling your story or sharing other people’s stories and finding new ways to delight audiences. We’re doing the same with the next two films on our slate. And they’re very serious subjects. But when we pitch them, wait a few seconds and then add, “Oh yeah, it’s also going to be hilarious,” their faces light up and they burst out laughing because on paper, there’s no way these serious issues should be funny. But we’re humans. We’re all flawed and ridiculous. And life…well, humour is an increasingly important medicine. It helps everything go down better.
Tickets are still available for the screening of Pecking Order at the TIFF Bell Lightbox this Saturday at 10AM.