Pecking Order


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Pecking Order
"Though it finds humour, and may even be poking fun on occasion, it never feels disrespectful."

An organisation finds itself in the throes of a succession crisis, caught in factional struggle. There are associated boycotts, accusations of poisoning - a body with a long and august history spanning more than a century is imperilled by fierce internecine conflict. This messy politics of personality and priority is documented by Slavko Martinov. His subject? The Christchurch Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club.

There is a temptation here to indulge in low impulses and subject you to a barrage of puns. At least one poster for the film asks 'Who Will Rule The Roost?' and that is not the only piece of such play. Filmed in Martinov's native New Zealand, establishing elements include an eggshell globe, but there are potentially more complicated things afoot.

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This is an enjoyable film, well constructed, well shot, following the Club over a year across meetings, shows, competitions, interviewing its members in public and in private as the club attempts to cope with a perceived power vacuum - one complicated by the fact that the big chair isn't currently empty... It was popular with the audience at the screening Eye For Film saw at 2017's Edinburgh Film Festival, but some of the reaction illustrates the difficulty with the film. There was a feeling that there had been an imposition of interpretation. While neutral documentary is probably impossible, some choices seem to set this is as comedy. The problem is that this is a subject that can easily seem ridiculous, and though the film does a reasonable job of walking that line there are times when one wonders not if we are laughing at when we should be laughing with but if one should be laughing at all.

That tonal uncertainty isn't helped by some prosaic locative elements - What We Do In The Shadows made use of the same sorts of civic halls, but the first syllable in mockumentary doesn't just mean 'fake'.

There are clearly high emotions among those depicted - a 150th anniversary looms, and though it's easy to be minded of that quote about academic politics (and by extension the arguments about its originator, though I prefer it as Sayre's Law) being so vicious because the stakes are so low - and one could argue that this is hardly life or death, but that's not the case. There isn't much dissembling about the winnowing of flocks as birds are pushed towards competition, anything not destined for the podium is headed for the pot. I could say something about the preparation of omelettes and the consequences for eggs but I'd be trying to have my cake and eat it.

I'd said above that there's a temptation to subject you to a barrage of puns, but it took conscious effort not to use 'battery' and that's effectively the problem. That the members of the club depicted are subtitled is perhaps a consequence of international intentions, but the presence of a score complicates things. Tom McLeod's original music manages a measure of jaunt even as tensions escalate in the lockstep towards national competition, but portentious pomp would seem potentially more ridiculous than something breezy. Beyond depicting the politics the film has to explain the processes and procedures of competitive animal shows which will be alien to most - I discovered last weekend that one of my cousin's weans has won their first rosette with a lamb that then sold for a profit, but even I benefitted from an explanation of the breed standards that inform judging. I did, admittedly (as will most who've seen Role Models) also end up laughing at the names of one of the breeds, but that moment of humour is one that can be attributed to audience. Others, and there are plenty, are less certain.

In the end (as is the case with the club members) I found myself second-guessing, but ultimately enjoying myself. Though it finds humour, and may even be poking fun on occasion, it never feels disrespectful. Though the access granted to Martinov is significant, especially as he's invited into the homes of many of his subjects, moments where he's asked to leave say as much about how seriously those involved take the events depicted. That the film manages to avoid feeling arch despite the occasional feeling that one is listening to someone recounting something while engaged in a good-natured shrug doesn't bely the fact that there's been an attempt on the part of the film-maker to take things seriously themselves. That unease, my unease, with tone is perhaps borne from the fact that Pecking Order is sufficiently compassionate in its depiction that one can readily and easily understand that however far-off and small the concerns of a New Zealand chicken-fancier might seem there's still a human story to be told, here humorously, humanely, handily. Scramble to see it.

Reviewed on: 24 Aug 2017
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Pecking Order packshot
Documentary investigates the world of New Zealand chicken breeders.`
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Director: Slavko Martinov

Starring: Doug Bain, Sarah Bunton, Bob Dawber, Brian Glassey, Brett Hawker, Mark Lilley, Rhys Lilley, Clint O'Brien, Ian Selby, Marina Steinke

Year: 2017

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: New Zealand

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