On its surface, ‘Chicken People’ is a documentary that follows the ups and downs of three chicken breeders on the road to the 2015 Ohio National Poultry Show. Underneath all the arcane nomenclature and impenetrable nit-picking of a bird’s indiscernible faults (indiscernible to non-poultry show judges, that is), it’s a charming and often moving character study. Although its subjects are drawn from diverse walks of life, their connections with their birds are a gateway into their own lives, and the very human tragedies and triumphs that underpin them.
Our three ‘chicken people’ are race engineer Brian Knox from New Hampshire, singer and theatre performer Brian Caraker from Missouri, and homemaker Shari McCullough from Indiana. Their love for and dedication to their birds is astonishing, and quickly works to draw the viewer into their sincere but bizarre culture of constantly breeding and annually showing birds. In an early segment, one of Brian’s chickens takes out second place in the 2014 Ohio National, and his openly emotional, ecstatic response is all it takes to let you know that this is a big deal. Chickens may not be their whole lives, but if they can make Brian crack up, you can be sure they’re a vital part of their identities.
Each figure is fascinating in their own way. Brian Knox is a self-confessed breed-aholic, having bred and hatched over 30,000 chicks in a complex breeding program that, although also recorded on paper, is etched into his brain. Looking at each bird’s family tree, Brian need only see the identification numbers of the chickens that sired them to bring them perfectly to mind. Although he is currently focused on an unusual breed, a striking black and white bird called a Wyandotte, he says that finally attaining the perfect bird would mean that he would find another breed to rescue. Every inch the perfectionist, when not meticulously combining his different birds to compound or breed out certain traits, Brian is building engines for various racing car teams in local circuits. His poultry show mentor, who took Brian to his first show at age 11, makes an appearance late in the film, offering an intimate look into his simple origins. Brian speaks about a past relationship with a fellow chicken fanatic, but says his chicken-centric lifestyle is not conducive to having a girlfriend. His commitment to his birds is inspiring, although the loneliness it entails is heart-breaking.
Brian Caraker’s story is more multifaceted, but no less compelling. Bullied as a child (you get the sense that a talented and flamboyant performer like him may have been out of place in rural Missouri), his chickens became his ‘oasis’. As he lives in a small town called Branson, his parents maintain his birds at their small farm from day to day, a job they don’t relish but undertake for their love of their son. While the film mines some drama from Brian’s tenuous job security, the most moving thing about Brian is the way he discusses his chickens; his prose is not quite as analytical as Knox’s, but it comes from a place of friendship and deep care. He considers raising his chickens a ‘spiritual experience’, and his passion is contagious.
Finally, we meet Shari McCullough, who found purpose in her chickens after enduring years as an alcoholic. Now teetotal, Shari relishes the hours she spends caring for her large brood, while also juggling the responsibilities of caring for her large family. Though Shari struggles with panic attacks, her experiences with Poultry Shows are indispensable in showing her that her fears can be overcome. When not talking chickens, Shari has a penchant for photographing birds in the area around her family farm. There are a few moments of interaction between the three leads, and their good sportsmanship is more reason to like them (although it does make picking a favourite an impossible task).
Each of these figures is extremely watchable and makes for good company. Their successes and failures become yours too, as is the case in the best sports films (which I imagine competitive chicken showing is to its subjects). Debut director Nicole Lucas Haimes keeps things brisk, splicing some ‘talking heads’ between her three leads, though these tend towards the comedic (one discusses letting their chickens share their bed, while others recall a fellow breeder resuscitating one of their birds at a show using mouth to mouth). It’s all crisply shot and sharply edited, which elevates the curio material above its potential fate as an episode of a current affairs program. Despite having raised chickens as a child, I would not consider myself a chicken person. Despite this, for 83 minutes while watching this fascinating, strange documentary, I absolutely was.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting