Inside the (Seemingly) Bizarre Universe of Poultry Pageantry

September 23, 2016

The first thirty seconds of director Nicole Lucas Haimes' Chicken People are nightmarishly disorienting. The film, a CMT and Motto Pictures documentary that comes out in select theaters across the country today, begins with a man who's talking about how much he loves his chickens before he breaks out in song, crooning his way through Frank Sinatra’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” He's a slight, mousy guy, with long sideburns that droop below his earlobes. This song is set against images of chickens of every shade and stripe in various milieus, from parched farmlands to grassy expanses, clucking and craning their stubby necks. This goes on for a good minute before the title cards roll.

We soon learn that the singing man’s name is Brian Caraker. He lives in Missouri, and he's a small-town musical theater star who sings 60s cover songs for a living. When he’s not doing that, though, he’s transforming precious farm chickens into show chickens with the monomaniacal diligence of a stage parent. Caraker is one of three main characters in Chicken People, all of whom have devoted a good fraction of their lives to breeding chickens for show. There's another Brian, Brian Knox, an older race engine builder from New Hampshire. The third is Shari McCollough, a middle-aged, self-described "mother to five children, four dogs, a llama named Comet, 200 chickens, and 40 bunnies" who lives in Indiana.

Shari McCollough, one of the film's three titular chicken people. Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films

Chicken People documents the steps these three take in the months leading up to November’s Ohio National Poultry Show, the biggest of its kind (“It’s like the Westminster of the chicken shows,” McCollough says, referring to the pageant for dogs). America is home to a remarkably large constellation of poultry competitions; the film's count puts it at 230, a factoid introduced so casually that I had to pause and rewind my screener a good three times to process it. (You can look at the American Poultry Association's site here for a sampling of all these competitions.) At the Ohio Nationals, their precious birds will be judged by a panel of poultry experts for vitals: eye color, feather quality, feet, toes. (An unexpected bout of Avian Flu abruptly cancels Ohio, though, leading them to go to Knoxville's Dixie Classic a month later instead.) It's a competition where the chicken is reduced to a calculus of desirable and undesirable physical traits.

A page from the American Poultry Association's American Standard of Perfection, the official breed standard book for American poultry, a real thing that has existed since 1874. Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films

The film begins by approaching these people from a place of skepticism. I imagine this will be most audience members' entry point into the film's subject matter, too, as it was mine; this isn't exactly an obsession that gets a ton of airplay. Haimes, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker who's amassed credits for documentary work on networks like ABC and PBS, began Chicken People in 2011, flummoxed by the fascination her 11-year-old son and his elementary school friends had with chickens. After seeing a throwaway reference to these shows in a book filled with chicken portraits, she decided to sink into that world a bit more before realizing that she'd have enough material for a film.

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Beyond the three principals, Haimes stuffs the film with a roving carousel of supporting characters. They're all eccentric poultry obsessives—adolescent twins who speak in droll tones, a middle-aged woman wearing a cardigan embellished with patches of chickens. Many of them have perfected their chicken impressions, able to imitate their sounds with alarming realism. One woman in particular, when describing how much their roosters love their hens, imitates how they sound when hawks approach their precious hens. "You want a piece of me?!" she screams, flailing her arms and gnashing her teeth together to resemble a rooster, her intensity rivaling Faye Dunaway's in Mommie Dearest. "You want a piece of me?!"

These gentle hands belong to Brian Caraker, another of the film's three principals. Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films

But the tone shifts beyond being merely whimsical and into a more compelling study of the therapeutic power of this practice; it's as if Haimes wound up etching an entirely different story than the one she set out to tell, an outcome she all but confirmed. “Over time, my preconceived notions about the competitors changed. Yes, people who diaper their chickens and keep them in the house are humorous, but I discovered generous and genuine people who are absolutely passionate about their show birds,“ Haimes said. “This human­-chicken relationship, this human­-chicken love, propels many of the folks I met to become the best version of themselves.“

As the film progresses, Haimes defers from judging her characters and instead turns a more sympathetic eye to their lives. McCollough, we learn, is still wrestling with the aftereffects of her own alcoholism and the cataclysmic effects it's had upon her family. Caraker is struggling with the lingering lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem he's been unable to shake since childhood. “The poultry is a bit of an oasis for me,” he explains in one scene. “The chickens don’t judge you. They don’t judge me.”

A small child lovingly caressing a chicken. Photo by Samuel Goldwyn Films

This is pretty heady stuff, but Haimes never quite loses sight of the innate absurdity of this whole charade. What emerges is a cogent portrait of three people striving for purpose where they haven't found any elsewhere in their lives, seeking sanctuary in a practice most may write off as too odd to engage with. I left the movie with my fair share of guilt, chastising myself for my initial reaction of slight horror to Caraker in the film's opening scene. The insecurities these characters had all started to feel familiar to me, so much that their passion for breeding chickens suddenly didn't seem so strange at all.

Chicken People comes out in theaters tonight. Check your local listings here.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.