Hanna: The United States loves to kill chickens. It’s the most popular meat in a country of meat-lovers, and we produce more than any other country in the world; in 2019, the US slaughtered and sold about 9 billion chickens. Between 50–90% of them were raised on large industrial farms called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), which are famous for imposing physical and genetic misery on their animals for the sake of efficiency. It’s hard to get a clear picture of the standard conditions in the poultry industry, but at worst, broiler chickens (raised only for meat) are packed into dark, cramped pens for the entirety of their lives, crippled by their own weight, and repeatedly exposed to infection. In short, the key stakeholders in the industrial agricultural complex do not care about the lives and fates of their number one meat product.
Chicken People, a documentary directed by Nicole Lucas Haimes and distributed by CMT, follows the small and intense community of competitive poultry shows – a community that cares very much for the lives of their chickens. The documentary focuses on the lives of three competitors in particular—Brian Caraker, Brian Knox, and Shari McCollough—in the months leading up to the Ohio National Poultry Show, which is the largest of approximately 300 poultry shows in the United States. Chicken People makes it clear that competitors take the circuit seriously: they rigorously study The American Standard of Perfection (the chicken equivalent of the American Kennel Club’s standard dog breed guide) and meticulously breed their chickens for just the right waddle hue and feather clarity. Brian Knox is the Gregor Mendel of the group; he’s raised thousands of chickens, and his systematic breeding program tracks each individual lineage so he can pair chickens with complimentary traits. Brian Caraker, a musical theatre performer, treats The Standard like a Bible and sprays his chickens’ feathers with a glossy polishing spray, which “changes a farm chicken into a show chicken.” Shari McCollough spends multiple hours a day grooming her little Silkies into puffy white clouds.
Obviously, the chickens are the stars of Chicken People; these birds are masterpieces. All kinds of chicken breeds and varieties—Silkies, Wyandottes, Brahmas, Sultans, etc.—are represented in the chicken exhibitions, and some of them are shockingly strange and beautiful. I could stare at those vivid, high-contrast chicken shots with the black background for hours. I’m also totally fascinated by this subsection of American pageantry that honors, glamorizes, and obsesses over the cheapest, blandest staple of the industrial agricultural complex. The documentary is interspersed with mini interviews à la When Harry Met Sally, which mostly involve other contestants gushing about their beautiful chickens, and their unassailable love for these dumb birds that we eat every day fills my heart with joy.
The part of this documentary that I struggle with the most is the treatment of the subjects. I thought Haimes focused a little too much on the personal problems of the three main competitors to emphasize that “Chicken People” are a fringe group, especially when they went into detail on Shari’s history of addiction. It didn’t feel exploitative, exactly, maybe a little condescending. I also just wish it had focused a little more on the history of poultry and agricultural shows in the United States, and I wanted 1000% more chicken content. Britnee, how do you think the documentary treated the “Chicken People” as subjects? Do you think she was fair to the competitors? Is there anything you would have changed about her focus?
Britnee: Chicken People does a great job of highlighting the uniqueness and quirkiness of its three human subjects without feeling exploitive. Documentaries that are similar in subject are typically gross for how they make fun of how “weird” the stars of the show are, and I was concerned this one would go that route. I love that it remains focused on the chicken people’s passion and dedication to their feathery friends. It’s so endearing. Haimes also manages to do a fantastic job of balancing the focus on each of them without making one seem more important or entertaining than the other. They each had their own individual journeys, but all somehow felt equal.
However, I do agree with you, Hanna. I wish there was more chicken content. I love the parts of the film where pages from The American Standard of Perfection took over the screen, explaining what made certain breeds of chicken perfect, and I especially enjoyed learning about how they are dolled up for competitions. I never really saw chickens as being beautiful before. I thought they were cute, but never really truly beautiful. After watching them so closely, I was truly stunned by so many of them. I’m definitely not going to be a chicken person or chicken owner anytime soon, but I have a newfound appreciation for their beauty and grace.
Boomer, I’m not sure what your experience is with chickens, but do you feel different towards chickens after watching Chicken People? Did the documentary spark an interest in the chicken universe?
Boomer: There’s a moment in Chicken People in which Brian Caraker says of his parents, “[They’re] not chicken people. I’m chicken people.” Well, dear readers, I’m not chicken people. But my mother is.
Growing up, we had chickens for almost as long as I can remember. Every couple of years, once the last generation stopped laying, Mom would put in an order for a new dozen at the co-op for the coming spring, and when April came, the new chicks would come home. For the first few weeks of life, they resided under a heat lamp in a box that had a dedicated spot on top of the dryer in the trailer, and then atop the freezer chest once we built and moved into the house. At that stage of life, their downy chickfeathers were so soft that they seemed more mammalian than avian. The first group were Rhode Island Reds; the following generation was a mix of Plymouth Rocks and Orpingtons. Later still we even had an Ameraucana or two (the most common chicken that lays green-tinted eggs). As soon as they were able, they were moved to the coop; it was my job to let them out of it every day after school so that they could roam and eat the various insects of the field, collect their eggs, feed them their pellets, and clean and refill their water fountains. When recalling my childhood (to call it a “reminisce” would be remiss), it’s impossible to extricate those memories from their accompanying odors and the tactile sensation of the squish of chicken shit between my toes. And that’s not even getting into the eggs. I was 16 when I went off to boarding school, and it was a solid decade before I would again consume an egg with anything other than revulsion. As a result, the people with whom I felt the most sympathy or identification in Chicken People were not any of the competitors; while watching the elder Carakers miserably wash a chicken fountain, I had a full on Proust Remembrance. I tell you the truth: Orpington roosters are such fucking assholes.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We lived—and my parents still live—in a place that was, paradoxically, deep country but not so rural that it was too far for city folk (for a given definition of both “city” and “folk”) to drop their old, unloved, or merely mutty hounds on our road. Near the end of Chicken People, recovering alcoholic Shari talks with a fellow competitor about the latter’s loving, gentle turkey that was killed by the neighbor’s dogs. Most of the time, when people came to abandon their animals, it was usually about a half mile away, at the bridge across the nameless finger of Redwood Creek that intersected our road. As such, there was never a lack of new, hungry, lost dogs in search of a meal. There was no love lost between me and those chickens, but it sure did break my mother’s heart to lose one, and no matter how much we fortified that coop and the pen, every few years, there was a massacre, throwing Mom into a depression for weeks, or even months. She grew up on a dairy farm and although our long, skinny 5 acres didn’t allow for even one cow, those chickens meant a lot to her, just like their fellow foul did to the Brians and Shari.
I guess that’s where I have to part ways with the consensus so far; although both Britnee and Hanna wanted more chicken info, I was much more interested in the people who were drawn to chickens and driven by their love of them. I was particularly interested in Shari’s family, especially since we clearly saw them over a period of time, given that one of her daughters leaves home for college and is seen visiting later in the film, although I guess that’s just my personal biases at play. We learned a lot about the families of both of the Brians, but solely through the eyes of their parents and grandparents, as neither has children or a wife/husband (Brian Knox at least had a lady friend at one point, and they’re still friendly, which is nice), who are surprisingly supportive and kind, perhaps because of their own hobbies, like drag racing and miniature trains. If this were fiction, I’d expect to see more ambivalence or mixed feelings on the part of Shari’s kids, given that becoming a chicken lady helped their mother with her drinking problem, but her sober crutch also meant less room for them in her daily life, one would think.
Personally, I’m generally distrustful of any media that ascribes human emotions, morality, and ideologies to animals. There’s a lot of anthropomorphization happening here on the part of the participants, who characterize their birds as “preparing to fight for [their] mate[s]” or taking pride in their appearance, etc. On a recent episode of the Lagniappe podcast, I expressed my annoyance at the filmmaker behind My Octopus Teacher for his similar narrative actions; the interesting thing that’s happening there isn’t that the octopus has become his friend, but that he sees the action of the octopus and perceives it as being of a kind with his own complex emotions. For its part, Chicken People doesn’t have that same kind of anthrocentric understanding of animal intelligence, but I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of it, as that’s where one gets the insight into the people, who are more interesting to me than the chickens. Brandon, what are your thoughts? Did you think there was sufficient time spent with the competitors? Were there any of the competitors who participated in the shorter “talking head” sections that you would have liked to see more of in the body of the film proper?
Brandon: Like Hanna and Britnee, I also found the exquisitely bred & manicured show-chickens to be more fascinating than their imperfect human masters. The most outright cinematic touches to the film are in the fine-art photography shoots set against a black void, where various chickens are examined uncomfortably close-up in high definition. If there was any further narration or talking-head interview footage missing for me, it’s in the film’s potentially amazing Werner Herzog commentary track. Herzog has a great talent for un-anthropomorphizing nature’s most peculiar beasts, and I’d love to hear him expand on his already stellar 2012 monologue about the disturbing nature of chickens into a feature-length philosophical rant. I was particularly thinking about his horrified, abstracted reaction to chickens in the final sequence at the Ohio National Poultry Show, wherein a massive convention space echoes the continuous screams of hundreds of chickens for hours of unrelenting cacophony. It’s a bizarrely hideous sound that no one in the room thinks to acknowledge, because they’re just used to being submerged in it. Herzog’s always great for pointing out the strangeness of those kinds of horrifying experiences that have become normalized & familiar only through repetition.
Otherwise, I’m mostly satisfied with the balance of talking-heads-to-chicken-heads screentime ratio here. As a Country Music Television production, Chicken People is closer to reality TV than it is to more hoity-toity docs like Gates of Heaven, and it does a decent job of constructing a narrative for each of its three main subjects within that template. If it had been stretched out into multiple seasons of television, there would’ve been plenty enough room for more insight into the lives of its color-commentary interviewees, but at just 83min I think it was smart to limit its scope to just a few competitors. My only real complaint with that balance is the way it’s squeamish about elaborating on Brian Caraker’s romantic life, a critique I also saw echoed in Julius Kassendorf’s review of the film for The Solute. While the other two contestants talk about their heterosexual romantic partners at length, Caraker is only allowed to make vague hints that he is gay without every actually speaking the word out loud or making direct references to his past relationships. I don’t know if that was Caraker’s personal decision or a mandate from the Conservative-leaning higher-ups at CMT Docs, but it’s a glaring omission all the same. I wish we could’ve gotten to know Caraker better without having to tiptoe around the concrete details of his personal life, especially in contrast to how his competitors are treated.
Then again, Caraker was also the most compelling of the three contestants to me in almost every way. He’s the only one of the titular chicken people who could rival the actual chickens for pure entertainment value – especially in those cutaways to his otherworldly stage performances in Branson, MO. I could have watched an entire movie about him without the other two contestants ever butting in and left just as satisfied.
Hanna: I’m SO glad that Brandon brought up Herzog’s wonderful monologue on the barbaric stupidity of chickens. My second favorite chicken quote is from Joshue Oppenheimer, who directed The Act of Killing: “Chickens are living manifestations of death, bred only to be domesticated and killed. When we look into their eyes, we see the part of ourselves of which we are most afraid – our ultimate destination. Death.” Such sweet little feathery canvases to project our mortal fears upon!
Britnee: The Modern Game Bantams may be my favorite breed of chicken featured here. They have long supermodel legs and it looks like they’re wearing little bike shorts. They make me so uncomfortable, but I can’t stop looking at them! I want a farm full of these little creeps.
Boomer: Orpington roosters are such assholes. I’d also like to note that Shari is missing a word in one of her interviews; she says (roughly) that “People think of chickens as dirty, smelly creatures, but that’s not true,” followed by a statement that “[she] spends 4 or 5 hours a day grooming her chickens.” There’s a big because missing right there in the middle. Chickens are dirty, at least from a certain perspective, as they do clean themselves in dirt, like a lot of birds. They absolutely do shit positively everywhere as well; look no further than the fact that so many talking head interviewees have extensive diapering systems for their chickens as proof.
Finally, it seems like Brian may have gotten his wish to open a farm, if this Facebook page for Caraker Farms is any indication (according to the info panel, they are “very responsive” to messages). He also has a Twitter account, although it appears to be largely inactive, given that his last tweet was from 2014, in which he expressed interest in a Mitt Romney candidacy in 2016.
Brandon: As sweetly quaint as this documentary is, I do think Chicken People would also make a great title for a horror film, like the poultry version of Alligator People. We’ve seen a horror take on humanoid chicken people before in films like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Troma’s Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, so it’s not that far outside the realm of possibility. Even in their pampered beauty-contest version here, the little edible dinosaurs are just as creepy as they are oddly beautiful, and I think that imagery could easily be mined for more creature-feature monstrosities.
Upcoming Movies of the Month
July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
August: Boomer presents Sneakers (1992)
September: Britnee presents Hello Again (1987)
-The Swampflix Crew