Winging it with chickens
Find out why these youths stayed in Indonesia for three weeks to film a chicken beauty pageant.
At a mere mention of beauty pageants, we are bound to think of the usual Miss Singapore or Miss Universe competitions.
But wait till you hear about the quirky scene of chicken beauty pageants, which is quietly brewing in the United States, Europe, and even Indonesia.
While most beauty pageants judge humans based on their looks and figures, these Serama chickens are scrutinised for their feathers, colours, and confidence.
That is not all. The most absurd category, “Raja Kebas (Flap King)”, requires chickens to flap their wings as many times within a minute or two.
That was what the four-man team behind Chicken Beauty Pageant discovered while working on their entertaining documentary, which is nominated for two awards in this year’s National Youth Film Awards (NYFA): Best Documentary, and Best Editing for Documentary.
For Chicken Beauty Pageant, the team flew to Jakarta and took a 13-hour train ride to Kediri, Indonesia, where they stayed for three weeks.
They held interviews with local competitors and filmed competitions like the ASEAN Serama Cup, giving viewers a glimpse of the chicken beauty pageant scene in Indonesia.
Feeling intrigued by their unconventional subject matter, I sat down for a chat with two members from the team, Jessica Novia Sutrisno and Nurul Amirah Haris, who are the producer and director of Chicken Beauty Pageant respectively.
The other two members, Eunice Tan and Amirt Kaur Jastol, are currently filming a project in China together.
The all-female team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) was inspired to work on chicken beauty pageants after stumbling on the Serama chicken pageant portraits created by local award-winning photographer Ernest Goh.
They also wanted to highlight the evolving beauty standards in society today through their 14-minute documentary, which was created for their final year project.
A startling discovery made by the team, all recent graduates from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, was how cross-breeding and surgeries for aesthetic purposes were involved to increase the chicken’s splendour.
Jessica, 23, explained: “The chicken’s chest used to be lower, but having a higher chest is considered the pinnacle of a chicken’s beauty now.”
Working on their documentary placed them through multiple tests of spontaneity and patience.
After seeking advice from Ernest for overseas contacts, the team raised money by doing freelance work and crowdfunding, which totalled up to $4,000 in total, to fund their trip.
While working in Indonesia, the team had to change their documentary angles multiple times as getting local chicken beauticians (yes, it is a real thing) to open up was no easy feat.
With a sigh, Amirah, 23, recalled: “We had to wear them down in order to get answers that were less PR-ish. Each interview usually lasted one hour.”
They also tussled over ethical concerns while gathering content for their documentary.
While filming a surgery of an alteration of a chicken’s comb, they were freaked out by the bloody procedure.
Jessica, a writer and producer at a local production house, added: “The chickens must [have been] in a fair amount of pain. It made me reflect on how it’s not too different from humans who go for plastic surgery to look a certain way.”
Working with animals proved to be a recurring challenge too.
“I had to tell the chicken to calm down and be like, ‘Just one more shot!’,” said Jessica, who was often teased for being the “chicken whisperer” in the team.
Even Jessica’s furniture was not spared.
Amirah, a freelance video journalist at YAHOO!, cheekily disclosed: “To capture a shot of the chicken revolving, we borrowed Jessica’s parents’ lazy Susan. There was so much chicken poop after the shoot!”
Jessica added in between laughs: “We quietly put it back after that. I still haven’t told my mum about it.”
So, what’s next for the team?
Jessica boldly said: “We want to continue chasing stories without restrictions. That’s our dream, although in reality, it is more difficult.”
Given the team’s tight bond and willingness to try experimental concepts, maybe it won’t be too long for their goals to materialise.
The NYFA awards ceremony will be held on Jul 23.