In the 1970s, the great Irish comedian Dave Allen hosted a series of documentaries entitled In Search of the Great English Eccentrics, and a later version called Eccentrics at Play. If I were to summarise them, these documentaries would sound exploitative and debasing. Allen, however, would not dare condescend to participants and was genuinely interested in their lives; the results were heartwarming. These ‘eccentric’ people simply attended to their passions, and the world seemed all the better for it.
If that is a model of sensitive biographical filmmaking, then Slavko Martinov’s Pecking Order is the reverse. The film documents the ongoings of the ‘Christchurch Poultry, Bantam and Pigeon Club’ in the run up to New Zealand’s National Poultry Show. The main players are Doug Bain, the club’s president, convinced that his position is under fire; Ian Selby, writer of the ‘New Zealand National Poultry Show Judging Rulebook’, a man so ruthlessly competitive that he comes across as a chicken-coop Ayn Rand; and Mark Lilley, a potential president in the eyes of the ‘modernising’ faction of the club.
While moments of good grace and humour are caught on camera, such as when one participant describes a bird of his as ‘absolutely gutted to be here’ (this made me snort like a buffalo), there is tonal confusion. Instead of interviewing club members about their lives and allowing their charming answers to make up the running time, the film begins to follow the bureaucratic machinations of the club.
This becomes quite nasty, and the audience is asked to watch as participants become sincerely uncomfortable and embittered. Punctuating this are captions consisting of fowl puns. As such, the film both leans in for a laugh at club members, yet simultaneously wallows in their miseries. Watching Pecking Order is an oddly cruel and depressing experience.
Image: Ryan Somma