At first glance, nothing really explains the popularity of fest fave “Mississippi Chicken,” John Fiege’s frosh docu on Latino poultry factory workers in the Deep South. Sure, pic exudes a warm, down-homey, hang-with-the-folks feel, enhanced by the helmer’s lazy, color-saturated Super-8 lensing. “Chicken” creeps up on the viewer and, by the final credits, insinuates a lot of peripheral information that somehow adds up to a very unique experience. Nominated for the Museum of Modern Art’s award for best film not playing in a theater near you, pic may belie that description, seeming ripe for limited indie release.
Fiege structures his film around the comings and goings of Anita Grabowski (who gets a producing credit), a young activist from Texas who has come to Canton, Miss., to set up a workers’ center — a facility designed to explain and protect the rights of the large Latino community living in a huge trailer park just outside town. Ostensibly, “Chicken” resembles “Made in L.A.,” another docu about Hispanic workers’ rights. But whereas “Made” is propelled by its principals’ political transformation, “Chicken” reps more of an ethnographic walkabout, following Anita’s freestyle perambulations as she gets caught up in various dramas, few of them directly related to factory work, in one long detour around the poultry plants.
Virtually none of the action takes place in the workers’ center. Instead, the interactions of recent Hispanic immigrants with indigenous populations play out in seemingly random venues, like a black farmer’s verdant backyard, where he slaughters a hog for a 14-year-old Mexican girl’s birthday party.
The girl is the daughter of Guillermina, and it is Guillermina who eventually functions as pic’s unofficial protagonist, her trailer becoming the de facto central location. Having left the hazardous conditions of the factory in an ambulance, Guillermina now makes ends meet cooking for workers in the trailer park. Grabowski forges a strong bond with this woman from Vera Cruz, and most of the film’s subsequent happenings connect to Guillermina and her extended family.
Behind the docu’s deceptive simplicity, a complex sound/image dynamic is at work. While conversations on the soundtrack contribute to the ongoing narrative, the camera wanders around picking up on whatever momentarily catches its interest — a dog, a photograph, someone talking, someone listening, a plate of food — all existing on the same experiential plane, placing the viewer in the role of a curious visitor receiving information obliquely.
At the same time, the film includes personal voiceover by Grabowski, whose commentary further skews the sound/image dialectic. While the camera remains tethered to the here and now, Anita’s storytelling sometimes fast-forwards to future events, implying an unseen off-space that is purely anecdotal. Sometimes the image literally freeze-frames while Anita recounts some painful future in which people disappear, are raped or murdered or wind up forever stuck in the poultry plant, only to return to the present tense, and to the warmth and intimacy of personal interaction.
Tech credits are constantly inventive, but quietly so.