A Report on ‘AFI DOCS’ Part 3: ‘The Dog’ and ‘Chicken People,’ Sonita,’ ‘The Road,’ and ‘in the shadow of the hill’

Final Day of the AFI DOCS and it ends with a nice and easy day, just two but sadly for you, I can only talk about the one (well, you won’t regret that in a moment, I promise). I saw two films today, but I can’t talk about Doc & Darryl, which is about the two New York Mets stars who burned brightly and then consumed themselves, until July 18th when it finally airs on ESPN.

In the meantime, let’s talk Chicken People.

No, wait. Let’s start with The Dog. In 2015, when Sony decided to close repair centers for Aibo, a line of robotic dogs they made from 1999 to 2006, the New York Times commissioned a short piece as well as this short film (The Dog) as part of a Bits series called Robotica. Aibo was never more than a side show for Sony, only 150,000 were sold, but many people who did buy them invested a lot of emotional energy into them.

The Dog opens with a funeral for defunct Aibo, because in Japanese culture, every object has a soul, not just living ones and Sony’s recent closure means, as an Aibo repairman reminds us, that no new parts will ever be made. For him and for the many people who have emotionally connected with these robotic imitations of pets, this is a potent reminder of their own mortality. It’s a fascinating insight into Japanese culture that I would love to see fleshed out as a feature at some point in the future. Because we all die and learning how people cope with that can be profoundly moving (just ask Errol Morris)

Chicken People

'Chicken People.'
‘Chicken People.’

I guarantee that you have been saying the word “leghorn” wrong for your entire life (its more “legurn” than “leg horn” as it turns out). I’ve never had much occasion to the get into the weeds on chicken breeds but Chicken People just made me sit up and think maybe I should have. Chicken People is about the people, and the beautiful birds, no joke, of the poultry show circuit (think the Westminster Dog Show, but you know, for chickens, some ducks, and the odd turkey).

As you would kind of expect, the people who have devoted extensive time and resources to breed chickens to meet the requirements set by a book called The Standard of Perfection (can’t beat that for stakes now can you?) are all just ever so slightly off-kilter, but they are also deeply invested in the raising of live animals, so there is a real emotional center to this story which makes for a great, human story, but the doc takes some time for some really hilarious commentary provided by a host of unnamed chicken breeders rolling through Antiques Roadshowstyle side interviews with the comic flair of VH1 commentary during that brief moment when such commentary was actually relevant and funny.

The main characters of this hilarious film are given so much respect by the filmmakers and we get such well-drawn portraits of these, often hilarious, and always enthusiastic and utterly genuine people, who have dedicated their spare time to raising chickens.

Brian Knox has hatched something like 11,000 eggs, has been doing it for 40 years, and he’s just an adorable dork of a man. Shari recovered from alcoholism by switching over to raising chickens, so how can you possibly root against her when it comes to show time?

Brian Caraker is a young, single man in his mid-twenties who sings in Branson, MO for a living but he knows his Standard of Perfection to such perfection that it never becomes laughable. Those are your stars, those are the stories we stick to, as the film races along from the 2014 Ohio National to the 2015 substitute in Knoxville after the Ohio National competition is cancelled because of the avian flu epidemic.

Some bird has to be crowned Super Grand Champion (I am so not making that up). Will it be Brian, Shari, or, er Brian? You have to see the doc to find out.


Chicken People is the best real-life version of Best in Show ever made and I hope that CMT finds a way to get this doc onto its flagship channel so that a whole bunch of other people get a chance to experience it’s genius as well.

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AFI Docs continues through tomorrow, Sunday, June 26, 2016. You can still buy tickets and passes.

A Report on ‘AFI DOCS’ Part 1: ‘Zero Days’, ‘Tempestad,’ and ‘Haveababy’ by Erin Teachman.

A Report on ‘AFI DOCS’ Part 2: ‘Sonita,’ ‘The Road,’ and ‘in the shadow of the hill.’


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