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Adelaide Film Festival review: Pecking Order

Film & TV

Can’t tell a Buff Orpington from a Barred Plymouth Rock? Watch Pecking Order’s exposé of the New Zealand poultry scene and you’ll definitely learn the difference between a cock of the walk and a feather duster.

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Director Slavko Martinov’s documentary profiles the 148-year-old Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club in the lead-up to the NZ National Show in Oamaru on NZ’s South Island.

The event is the highlight of every breeder’s calendar. This year, the path to the announcement of “best in show” is paved with intense commitment, power plays, internal club disputes and even the possibility of poisoning.

Along the way we watch the main characters as they care for the birds they breed. It’s a round-the-clock job — feeding hazelnuts for shiny feathers, giving pre-show baths and blow-dries, inspecting feathers, feet and faces to check for any flaws that might result in loss of points during competition.

Some birds must be exposed to the elements to “harden” their physique, while others need to be kept undercover to protect them from the darkening effects of sunlight on their pristine white appearance.

Throughout this quirky documentary the humanity of the central characters is what is most interesting. Each, in their own way, is obsessed by their love of the hobby and the desire to win.

Their dedication to the pursuit is not to be laughed at — there’s a big difference between having backyard poultry and showing. Rhys Lilley, age 14, inherited his love of chooks from his father, Mark. He realises it’s not a common pastime for kids — “my friends probably describe me as different” — but loves his White Leghorn bantams and earns his share of the ribbons whenever he competes.

There are so many interesting personalities on show. Brian Glassey is a champion breeder and self-described eccentric. His birds are his life. On just four hours sleep a night he’s devoted 50 years of his bachelor life to producing the perfect chicken in breeds ranging from Australorps to Silkies.

Ian Selby, compiler of the New Zealand Poultry Standards (the guide to poultry showing in NZ), gives us a judge’s insight into what makes a winning bird. It pays to be aware of exactly what each judge is looking for. One breeder described his key tactic: “Study the judges and then ‘set’ (breed the bird) for that.”

Every successful club needs a vision for its future. The question faced by members of the Christchurch club is a sticky one. Who best to lead them forward?

Their passion is evident, as are their struggles as some are forced to choose between longstanding friendships and what’s best for their organisation. Doug Bain, long-term member and club president, feels the pressure of the top position when his leadership is challenged from members who feel they’re not being heard. Who will rule the roost after the next AGM?

Director Martinov describes his film as a comedy-drama and a “profound, surprising and strangely universal commentary on what it is to be a human being”.

Pecking Order hits the mark as both a fascinating revelation of the enormous amount of effort these “chick fanciers” put into their hobby, and an examination of the sometimes painful personal and political hurdles faced by volunteer committees everywhere.

Pecking Order screens again as part of the 2017 Adelaide Film Festival at 6.15pm on October 15 at GU Film House Adelaide. See more festival stories and reviews here 

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