Producer, director and pro documentarian Nicole Lucas Haimes’ Chicken People is a study of people who love, breed and compulsively enter their prize chickens into competitions.
While Chicken People has been widely compared to the comic mockumentaries of Christopher Guest (especially his Best In Show), these humans and their chooks are all too real. Haimes works hard to get to know them too, and tries to establish what it is about these damn critters that’s so appealing to so many (and not just Americans), and yet somehow this falls short of being truly enlightening, settling instead to be a compelling, amusing and sometimes vaguely infuriating depiction of a flock of folks who, perhaps, really ought to get out more.
We open at the huge Ohio National Poultry Show where 9700 birds are in competition, and all manner of chicken-friendly types are interviewed around the cages (how they’re heard over the noise, or can stand the stink, is not clear). We also see a small army of them chatting in a studio with their favourite chooks, and Haimes hits us with oodles of information about chicken types (silkies, leghorns, the Australia-originating australorps, and so forth), chicken body parts and standards of feather quality, and things that could get you disqualified, including the lurid-sounding “vulture-like hocks”.
We then get up close and personal with three chicken people, and the first one is certainly the most memorable and annoying, as Brian Caraker kicks proceedings off by declaring himself a singer and breaking into Frank Sinatra’s The Way You Look Tonight before talking of his passion for the chicken lifestyle and how it eats into his ability to perform at a local theatre’s ‘60s show. He’s roped in his weary-looking parents to help him with all his birds, and they seem to do an awful lot of work while musing over what their son sees in his feathery hobby, and his joke about a cock is probably what gets this a PG rating (or that and a few glimpses of “wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am” chicken action).
We also meet Shari McCullough, a former alcoholic and “mother hen” to a brood of kids, a menagerie of animals and 200 or so chooks, and she discusses how caring for the birds brought her back from the edge and gave her life meaning. She cuddles, grooms and blow-dries (!) them and then gets pecked on the “ass”. We also meet the mildest guy on show here, “hatchaholic” Brian Knox, a quietly-spoken dude who also works as a race engine builder (no, really). He pointedly states that it’s hard to maintain intimate relationships when you work with cars and chooks all day. He’s so amiable that when he gets teary in the early scenes after winning a trophy you just might too.
As well as these homo sapien sorts, it’s also worth mentioning that the chickens here are very cute, and display an uncanny knack for parading or even pouting for Haimes’ camera that’s quite surprising. No wonder the chicken people talk of them all so adoringly, mention how they can now keep them inside as beloved pets after the invention of (yes it’s true), “chicken diapers”, and recoil at the notion of eating them. Well, mostly.
Rated PG. Chicken People is in cinemas now