SXSW Film Review – Chicken People
Passion can take many forms. For some it’s sports, others it’s movies, for the people in this film it’s raising competitive chickens. Having a passion makes us feel alive, and when dealing with people talking about their own passion you either can get swept up in their excitement or you can become bored with them talking about it so much. With Chicken People we luckily get more of the former.
Competitive chicken breeding is like other serious competitions–a lot harder than it sounds. The people that compete have a lot of rules they need to follow to make the perfect chicken and it is an all year preparation, trying to breed the perfect chicken. We follow three individuals as they describe what chicken breeding is all about. Shari is a homemaker who has some substance abuse issues in her past. Brian Caraker is a singer who was a lonely child due to I am guessing issues with his sexuality. Then there is Brian Knox, a mechanic who is close to his family and has many people close to him that understand his love of chickens but there is a sadness to him as well.
In following these individuals we are given just enough glimpses into their lives that we feel we have an understanding about them but nothing is ever spelled out to make them appear to be just chicken-obsessed individuals. There is a complexity to them as we see what raising chickens does to make them feel fulfilled, but where, like most obsessions, takes away something as well. Shari was an alcoholic and also suffers from some self esteem issues that cause her to worry about traveling to compete in a further away chicken judging contest. Her family supports her preference for raising chickens to finding her at home blacked out drunk. Brian Caraker has been willing to give up a successful stage career so he can compete and be with his chickens, which worries his parents at times. Brian Knox met a woman who shared his passion but they broke up and the implication is that it has something to do with his obsession with chickens. While they are still friends and he claims to be over her there is a sadness in his voice whenever he talks about her.
This is subject matter that is able to succeed as much as it does due to the passion of the people director Nicole Lucas Haimes has found to interview and follow over the course of a year. The film never judges these individuals but finds a way to examine them by allowing the audience to get not just a sense of what actually goes into chicken raising but also enough information about their lives so that we can feel connected but not so much that their lives are spelled out for us. As good a job as Nicole does in giving us a variety of people to watch it is also is the film’s weakness that there is only so much we can get out of these subjects and we start to lose interest bit by bit when it becomes clear that there is nothing else we are going to find out about them. We end up on auto pilot waiting for the competition to start. Yet when we get to the competition there is never a serious investment in seeing if these people would win outright. They were just interesting enough to follow but their stories never reached the point where a great documentary makes us start feeling fully invested in the journey of what they are going through.
Chicken People does a lot of things right in terms of finding complex enough characters that we can get insight into what is driving them, and also see the pluses and minuses about what being this passionate bordering on being obsessed can do for you. We see all the work that goes into breeding chickens and the emotional stakes the breeders place on themselves. This is a documentary that is solid in its structure and subject where you get to share their passion for just about the right amount of time so that you can appreciate what they love even if it doesn’t translate into truly feeling their passion.