Film Reviews

Review: ‘Pecking Order’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Pecking Order
(New Zealand, 88 min.)
Dir. Slavko Martinov
Programme: Magnificent Obsessions (World Premiere)

There’s trouble in the henhouse at Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club (CPBPC) in New Zealand. Doug, the cranky old president of the club, still thinks he’s cock of the walk. He refuses to go down without a fight. But Doug can’t beat the coup in the coop. Feathers are ruffled as chickenshit politics create a flurry of drama and chaos within the ranks of the club leading up to the National Poultry Show. CPBPC, a venerable institution for 148 years, puts its legacy at risk with some fowl play.

Pecking Order musters up as many poultry puns as it can imagine as director Slavko Martinov chronicles the enjoyably ridiculous preparations of the club’s members as they ready for the show. An egg timer ticks away in anticipation of the big event while chapter breaks are signalled by cheap wordplay and obvious gags. (The members of the production who are responsible for the film’s intertitles should be tarred and feathered.) Groaner-inducing title cards aside, Pecking Order takes a relaxed tour through high stakes farming with a good sense of humour despite a cast of characters that approaches the subject with the utmost severity.

The members of the club share tricks of the trade and reveal the aspects of good chicken-rearing that make their birds plum contenders for the top prize. The doc has lots of fun taking audiences inside a community that appreciates the skill and care that goes into raising animals in an age of factory farming and online distractions, although Martinov frequently risks portraying the subjects as simpletons or members of the Hee Haw gang.

The golden egg of Pecking Order, however, arises not in the show or competitions, but in the utterly silly club meetings. The members discuss their board meetings in conspiratorial whispers and paranoid interviews in which they reveal power struggles, backstabbing, coercion, and other behaviour that separates humans from animals. On the other hand, the dramatic tomfoolery and infighting at the club draws out the danger in staying the course and risking stagnation when the times are changing.

Pecking Order could easily be a Christopher Guest film with its talking heads approach to a cast of eccentric characters. These chicken breeders are the poultry kin of the pooch-loving trainers of Guest’s Best in Show. Martinov’s doc has a similarly offbeat style and droll sense of humour as the various breeders share their tips for raising prize chickens. Pecking Order is a quirky human interest piece that is occasionally funny and as simple as a straight line, although the feature length doc is nowhere near as funny, smart, and zippy as its expertly (and somewhat deceivingly) cut trailer suggests.

Like Colonel Saunders’ extra crispy drumsticks, Pecking Order contains more greasy drippings than nutritional value, but that doesn’t mean that one can’t enjoy a nibble for what it is. Doc fans without a palette for empty calories, however, might say that this one’s for the birds.

Pecking Order screens:
-Saturday, April 29 at TIFF Lightbox at 4:15 PM
-Sunday, April 30 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema at 10:30 AM
-Saturday, May 6 at TIFF Lightbox at 10:00 AM

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!