Purebred dogs have Westminster; purebred chickens have the Ohio National Poultry Show. In this competition, some 10,000 prime specimens from all over the U.S. battle for the title of Super Grand Champion. The often-eccentric bird breeders share a passion for fostering feathered finery, discovering in their chickens a salve for life’s challenges and traumas. Full of heart and humor, CHICKEN PEOPLE is a delightful portrait of America’s most meticulously manicured fowl and their biggest fans.
AFI spoke to director Nicole Lucas Haimes ahead of the film’s AFI DOCS premiere.
What led you to documentary filmmaking?
I am very interested in two things: social justice issues and funny stories. I was initially drawn to documentary filmmaking as a tool to create social change. CHICKEN PEOPLE is more on the side of funny, but in this case, it is also an uplifting portrait of how chickens helped our subjects find the meaning and purpose to become their best selves.
What inspired you to tell this story?
I began CHICKEN PEOPLE five years ago when my then-11-year-old son Lucas attended elementary school. For about 10 minutes, the boys in his class went wild for chickens, which I found odd given the urban nature of Los Angeles.
Mystified by Lucas and his friends chanting, “chicken, chicken, chicken,” followed by uproarious laughter, I nonetheless gifted him a book of chicken portraits. As we thumbed through the book, we noted the exquisite feather patterns and how the chickens resembled a stack of fluffy snowballs or wildly ornamental hats, I spotted a brief mention that people compete with these birds. Like the Westminster Dog Show, but for chickens.
That was it! I knew I had to make a film. There is indeed something inherently funny about chickens, and people breeding and showing chickens seemed even funnier. Shortly thereafter, I filmed a chicken competition, created a presentation reel and began the arduous process of trying to finance a quirky documentary in an era of social issue filmmaking.
As I made the movie, I discovered that the struggle our characters went through to find meaning and purpose in their lives elevates the film above just entertainment.
How did you find the subjects in your film?
I spoke to scores of people before narrowing down the focus to the final group. Before we shot at the first chicken show, we identified people who would be likely winners along with folks who we felt might be strong subjects. We brought several film crews to the first competition, the Ohio National Poultry Show, because we knew that this show would both launch our film and be a screen test to see who worked best on camera. Together, with producers Julie Goldman, Caroline Kaplan and Chris Clements, and with the benefit of input from CMT executives John Miller-Monzon and Louis Bogach, we made our final selection.
What was a particular obstacle you faced while making the film?
One obstacle was chicken illness. One couple we filmed had to drop out of the movie because their birds got sick with fowl pox, which is the chicken version of chicken pox. Perhaps more significantly, during the middle of our filming, the avian flu epidemic took hold — and while it eventually cost the lives of about 50 million birds, it also forced the closure of our climatic chicken show. Disaster! The planned ending to our film was lost and there was talk at the network of canceling the production. Our team began to explore other possibilities and we found a new venue: the Dixie Classic in Knoxville, TN. The show supervisors there agreed to let us film and because Knoxville is not in the path of the three migratory flyways where the disease was cropping up, we felt we could be safe, and indeed we were.
Another obstacle was finding the right tone to the storytelling — so that we could portray an eccentric hobby — while finding the humor, heart and humanity of the people involved.
What do you want audiences to walk away with after screening your film?
Beyond the chore of earning an income to meet survival needs, I think a cornerstone of happiness in life is the search for meaning and purpose. CHICKEN PEOPLE portrays individuals who found this in an unusual place — breeding, raising and competing show birds.
Why do you think Washington, DC, is a valuable location to screen your film?
Washington is one of the key centers of power in our country and I am thrilled to show a film that might remind those who thirst for money and power that there are other paths to happiness and triumph.
What documentary films or documentarians have been the most influential to you?
I have seen and been influenced by so many documentaries, from the Maysles brothers to Werner Herzog; it is hard to pick just one. I think Joshua Oppenheimer’s THE ACT OF KILLING is a masterpiece.
CHICKEN PEOPLE plays AFI DOCS on Saturday, June 25, at 7:00 p.m., and Sunday, June 26 at 2:45 p.m. Buy tickets here.