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New Zealand filmmaker and documentarian Slavko Martinov didn’t have to wander far from home to find the inspiration for his latest movie, Pecking Order, which makes its world premiere at Hot Docs on the festival’s opening weekend. A native of the community of Christchurch, Martinov started poking, scratching, and peeping around the 150 year old Christchurch Poultry, Bantam, and Pigeon Club to look at some “chook fanciers” who take their chickens very seriously.

Pitched on some level while looking for funding by Martinov jokingly as “Best in Show with chickens, but real,” Pecking Order indeed does look at a wide variety of bird enthusiasts as they attempt to prepare their wide variety of roosters and hens for regional and national competitions. It’s sort of like a dog show, and much like such a showcase of animal breeding, it comes with its own voluminous standard of dos and don’ts that participants and judges alike have to keep track of.

But Martinov, previously know for more politically minded films, also had the luck to be in the club at the exact right time, as rifts between the club’s old guard leadership and a desire to bring in new blood to attract younger members reaches its final point of incubation and cracks. Martinov knew going in to expect something like this, since one would expect such differences in ideologies within any club or organization, but he wasn’t prepared for how intense some members of the Christchurch Poultry Club could be.

We caught up with Martinov last week over Skype from his home in New Zealand to chat about the film.

You’re actually from Christchurch, so from your youth, what was your exposure to the Christchurch Poultry Club, and what did you know about them at the time?

Slavko Martinov: I had no idea there was a poultry club until I first got the idea of the film, which was around 2014. You’re going to be the first person I tell this to – because I’m having a sort of flashback right about now (laughs) – but growing up here back in the day, you had chickens. My grandparents actually had them in their backyard. We had chooks, which is what we called them here in New Zealand and in Australia. It was my job to feed the chooks. I would go down in the garden with a glass jar and find worms to feed them to the chooks. I knew my way around a chicken, although it had been a while by the time I got around to doing this documentary.

When you try to get into an organization like this club, which as you show in the film has a bit of a power struggle going on at the centre of it, is it hard to come in as an outsider and integrate yourself? I ask because I remember reading that you eventually joined the poultry club.

Slavko Martinov: Oh, I’m a member! (laughs) I’m on the board now! I have voting powers, sir! (laughs)

After all that you saw happen in your film, you still wanted to do that?

Slavko Martinov: (laughs) I really had no choice! At a meeting they said, “We need another board member,” and I’m off in the back just writing my notes, and I just hear, “Slavko!” And I’m, like, “No I couldn’t possibly…” And they just kind of told me they needed me. So now I have to go to meetings.

But to answer your question, you really do stand out like a sore thumb while trying to observe them because there are so few of them. When you walk in, everybody does a double take. “Who’s this? Fresh meat!” There’s this hubbub at the start of the meeting and they try to figure out what kind of chickens you’re into, and I am just sitting there at first, like, “What the f**k are you guys talking about?” And I just kind of nodded my head through those first meetings, like, “Yeah. Yeah. Mmmhmm. I like chickens.”

“It took a long time in that club to realize how longstanding the friction was and how large a lot of the rifts were. Some people aren’t going to tell you at first, and within the club everyone has to conduct themselves accordingly, so you’re never going to pick it up.”

It took me months to get into it because with all the lingo they threw around I couldn’t decipher at first what the heck they were talking about with all this lingo that they used. I think they knew I was a fraud pretty early on.

Was it difficult at first to meet them on their own level to make sure you got the entire story of what was going on with the club out of them, or were they just naturally forthcoming?

Slavko Martinov: It didn’t take long. At first, because clearly I didn’t know anything about chickens, I just said that I was there because I was local and from Christchurch and I was a filmmaker with an interest. I just hung out at the monthly meetings to get the vibe. When you’re making a doc you don’t know if you have something until you get that vibe. Maybe it was going to turn out that they weren’t all that competitive, or that the characters weren’t sparking in any way, so I started at first just by observing, which is hard in New Zealand, especially down south where people are incredibly understated and sometimes dry as a bone. You’re just looking for the slightest crack that can take off.

I just went to the club president and said, “I’m a filmmaker, and I think there’s a film in this.” I asked if it was possible to have a chat with everyone to see if filming was even a possibility. I told everyone what I was thinking, and the first thing everyone thought at the same time was, “That would be good for the fancy,” which is the term they give to chicken fancying. It only came out last week that the new president said – and probably now because things are blowing up with the film and posters are everywhere and it’s about to hit theatres – “We just thought you were a nice guy and that this was just going to show up on some TV channel somewhere and we’d have to get up at 5am to see it before the religious singers came on.” (laughs) They just thought it was going to be some guy hovering around, and they let me in.

It took me a while, to answer your question, because they’re so understated, dry, but very witty. It took a long time in that club to realize how longstanding the friction was and how large a lot of the rifts were. Some people aren’t going to tell you at first, and within the club everyone has to conduct themselves accordingly, so you’re never going to pick it up. There was one day, though, where someone said something, and I was holding a boom, and I look at my producer Mike [Kelland] who was on the camera, and his eyes just flickered back at me and we both thought, “Oh, shit!” We had found that gap that we were looking for, and sure enough we found all of the fault lines running underneath that club.

Considering the films that you had made before this, you clearly already had experience making movies with political overtones, so were you surprised when you go into this that you’re suddenly once again making a film that becomes largely about politics at certain points?

Slavko Martinov: (sighs) That will follow me wherever I go. (laughs) This was never going to just be Best in Show with chickens. You have to bring meaning either for yourself, or from your interest, or try to explore other realms. I was looking to do that because there’s no getting over the fact that within a club structure, people just organize themselves in similar ways. There’s always that cycle of the new trying to push away the old. Those things are always going to be there, but it changes in the extent to which people interact and treat each other. I didn’t know at first, but I was going to find out what that was for this club.

“When you’re making a doc you don’t know if you have something until you get that vibe. Maybe it was going to turn out that they weren’t all that competitive, or that the characters weren’t sparking in any way, so I started at first just by observing…”

I was originally going to explore this film in terms of H.A.R. – Human Animal Relations – and if I headed down that track, it still would have been an interesting film in that way, but as it goes with any documentary, certain issues put their hand up and become clearer. I ended up with this, even though the film commission that funded the film did fund it sort of as “Best in Show with chickens,” and thankfully I still ended up with an entertaining film. I was bullshitting with them the whole time about what this film was going to be like, but it really fell into my hands perfectly. (laughs) At least the politics were entertaining.

Well, the kind of politics that are on display here are just naturally funny because they’re the kind that many people see or have to put up with in their daily lives no matter what they do.

Slavko Martinov: Yes! That makes me happy that you said that because that’s the point, really. In any organization, circle of friends, community, profession, or international politics, this is always the way that we tend to conduct ourselves. We push and we play. There’s reaction and interaction.

One of the major rifts in the club that starts all this trouble is a longstanding beef between the poultry side of the club and the pigeon side of the club, and it seems like something people are passionate, but also cagey about. Now that you’re a member and you’ve made the film, have you been able to see the roots of that?

Slavko Martinov: That’s still a weird one. Of all the things – and that’s a good question, by the way – that’s such a strange rift. Going back to the start of the club, it was always the Christchurch Poultry and Bantam club. The club turns 150 this year, and there’s a purity and history to that, but there were also numerous pigeon and canary organizations that not a lot of people took seriously for various discriminatory reasons that don’t make much sense. But a few decades ago, there was an amalgamation, and the people in this club are old enough that for them, this is still a fresh wound that hasn’t healed. “What right do these pigeon people have coming along? They’re just attached to the club.”

“The stuff they really care about is how they run their breeding lines, and that’s not something anyone could copy, anyway. They keep stacks and stacks of books in detailed writing about who’s breeding with whom.”

So, as ridiculous as it seems, this has festered, and there’s just constant bickering about who’s bringing how much money into the club. People have just kept going into battle over this stuff for a lot of unknown reasons, and it’s so like so many unexplainable and petty conflicts around the world. They’re just falsely constructed tribes of separate players that perpetuates this battle to this day.

But they say that whenever there’s a big show, pigeon people will come together with a nice hug with the poultry people. The canary people just keep to themselves, but that’s a whole other documentary’s worth of material there. (laughs)

When you go to interview someone like Ian Selby, who literally wrote the New Zealand Poultry Standard, which is the bible for these sorts of competitions, how much of the book did you actually have to read and prepare to talk to him? Or were you just up front that you didn’t know a ton about chickens?

Slavko Martinov: You know, I always go for transparency, but in this case that almost would be disrespectful. By the time I got around to interviewing Ian at the Nationals, which was about a good year into filming by that stage, I knew a thing or two, and it had already become my job to sniff around that standard, myself, and talk to people to find out all about him. But still, compared to someone like that, there’s no point pretending you don’t know anything.

With Ian and that particular interview, we started in the afternoon, and he just kept talking until it kept getting darker and darker outside. I mean, Ian’s great, and he tells these amazing stories. He just talks and talks, and all of it is so good that you could have gotten all this material from him if we didn’t have to eventually make him stop. He’s so obsessed with what he does, but the funny thing is that if Ian could breed mice better, he would do that. He doesn’t even like chickens that much. (laughs) It’s just a fast turnaround for someone obsessed with the process of breeding. Horses take too long for him, and mice you just can’t do enough, and birds didn’t allow him to practice enough.

A lot of these people seem so passionate and obsessed with what they do and what their process is that it seems like none of them would be a short interview. Was that ever a consideration when sitting down to talk with people in an interview setting? Would you just let them go on more or less as long as they needed to?

Slavko Martinov: That’s a good question. It was usually hard to get everything in one go. Sometimes we’d have to fly up north to talk to some of the top breeders in the country, and when you have a limited amount of time scheduled for a day you know you want to spend at least half a day with them. You just want to spend time to walk around their paddock, and seeing them in action makes up for a lot of people just talking. For most people, if we knew we’d be following them for a long period of time, we’d just catch chats at their house, or at their farm, or at shows where they were appearing with their birds, and we just kept on developing different questions along the way. I was quite patient, and everyone was a terrific subject for an interview.

“This was never going to just be Best in Show with chickens. You have to bring meaning either for yourself, or from your interest, or try to explore other realms.”

Was there ever a concern on the part of any of your subject that you might get too close and accidentally reveal any of their trade secrets? Were there some things you weren’t allowed to film as part of their process?

Slavko Martinov: Yes. Everyone’s got their own special formula for doing nails and claws, and usually they’re passed on through generations. There are some things that you know you just don’t bother asking about. Sometimes people would tell me things about their preparation, and then there’d be a pause, and they’d say, “I can’t have someone else knowing about this! Bloody hell!” They’d always be laughing and joking in this respect, but they would catch themselves. But the stuff they really care about is how they run their breeding lines, and that’s not something anyone could copy, anyway. They keep stacks and stacks of books in detailed writing about who’s breeding with whom. Really, the only times I was ever asked to stop filming, as you see in the film, is whenever it comes to dealing with political moves that turn personal within the club.

Now that you’ve gone through this whole process and you see how these competitions are judged, do you see yourself looking at these birds in a competition and think that the judges are making the wrong calls? Because a lot of the judge’s calls seem like a sometimes uneasy blend of strict guidelines and personal preferences.

Slavko Martinov: I would never be a judge, and I think you raise a good point. Is there a natural instinct when it comes to determining what is the best? When it comes to birds, we got to a stage where Mike and I went to a show about a year and a half into production, and we sent down the aisle on the day when they put the birds out, which is called “penning day,” and would stop and find ourselves judging them, and we’d look and each other mystified that we gave that much of a shit. (laughs) We did get an eye for it, though. We knew what to look out for. I suppose that was inevitable if you spent enough time around something. You’d see what’s good and what’s not.

But even if an Australian judge were to come in, they would have to carry around and adhere to the New Zealand Poultry Standard. A judge can get so good when they’ve been around long enough, they will still develop their own preferences, and that’s in how every bird presents itself in a certain way. They stick to the standard still, but I suppose like humans in every way, we can all look at a painting and agree that it’s a masterpiece, but we all look at it in a different way. For me it might be this little cherub and angel sitting on a cloud looking at God, and you could really like the look of the clouds. They keep going back to the standard, but then they double back and say, “Yes, but it’s really about this…” Another big part of that is that there’s this thing about how all of these judges and breeders want to see or create a perfect bird, and that thought is usually followed by them saying, “but I know I’ll never do it.” But they have to keep trying until they almost literally drop dead. They’re that obsessed, but they’re out for perfection. There’s nothing worse that will make a top breeder cry than having a judge say that they have nothing at all to say about their bird.

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