Chicken director Alana Hicks: “The industry is shifting radically. People are being held accountable for their bias”

Director Alana Hicks candidly discusses her short film Chicken, Papua New Guinea and other things of the non-poultry variety.

Chicken (2019)

It’s no easy feat to address racial discrimination, economic disparity and migration (just ask any politician). Papua New Guinea-born director Alana Hicks has done just that with her short film Chicken.

Set in the 1990s, Chicken is a day in the life of a young mixed race girl, Barbara (Mariah Alone), and her Papua New Guinean mother, Rita. Just as she’s about to settle in for the evening and watch an episode of The Simpsons, her mother returns from the shop after being overcharged. Without giving her any choice in the matter, Barbara’s mother drags her to the shop to sort it out. As it happens, this was far from a misunderstanding. Barbara isn’t going to let the sales girl get away with it, even if it means missing her favourite show.

This self-aware, mother-daughter comedy ruffled feathers and induced tears of laughter at this year’s London Film Festival. The woman behind it is just as impressive. Meet Alana Hicks.

I was introduced to you through Chicken, but I assume that you had a whole life before your work appeared on my screen? 

Haha, yes, I did have a whole life before, during and after the filming of Chicken. I was born in Papua New Guinea to a PNG mother and a Scottish/Australian father. PNG is a bit of a paradox – breathtakingly beautiful, with people who are famous for their generosity, but, on the other hand, with frequent flare-ups of extreme violence and chaos. So I spent a lot of time in semi-isolation, or occasionally with extended family in the settlements (groups of village people living closer to the city). 

Alana Hicks directing Chicken (2019)

I consider myself lucky that I grew up in a place where I had little else to do but study plant life and the behaviours of my much older siblings and the many other relatives and friends who moved through my childhood home like guest stars in a sitcom.  

What were you like growing up?

I was a bit of a tiny jerk. I had this desire for ultimate justice, to right all the wrongs in the world, and I couldn’t understand why a little girl living in the tropics couldn’t solve all the world’s problems. To be fair I read a lot of comics and played many a video game. Perhaps the storylines and themes of the games and comics influenced a black-and-white view of the world, but nothing is black and white, especially if you’re mixed-raced. I haven’t changed much. I’m still pretty mad at all the real-world villains, but now I tire easily, I tend to go to sleep at 8pm, which doesn’t leave much time for pursuing justice. I probably should’ve been a lawyer, or a down-and-out private detective.

When did you decide that you wanted to work in the creative field?

I wrote my first story set in PNG (about my mother and the day her father died) in early high school and my English teacher made a big fuss about it, then gave me such encouragement for the rest of high school that I felt I owed it to her to try and become a professional writer. My mother and father were unbelievably supportive, which is like winning the lottery if you want to have a creative profession.

Chicken shows a way of experience that myself and many other people of the diaspora can relate to. Did it come from personal experience?

Yes, it happened more or less like the film, but it’s also an amalgam of many experiences my mother and I had after we moved to Sydney. There were worse stories. This one felt the most contained, and exemplified how racism can run the gamut of horrifying to downright inconvenient.

Chicken (2019)

What type of responses have you been receiving for the film?

I have received some beautiful responses, particularly from the migrant diaspora and the Pasifika community in particular. It’s uncommon to see Papua New Guinean people on screen, especially with the traditional tattoos. So I think my family and community from PNG were ecstatic to see that representation. 

Where were you when you found out that Chicken had been selected for the London Film Festival?

I was on the couch – this is where I receive all my news. My husband had a Sight & Sound subscription for years and we’ve carried these boxes of old BFI magazines to every place we’ve moved to. It felt circular somehow. I was afraid of making a short film because I know how brutal the festival circuit is. The rejections (and there have been many) are defeating, but the good news, when you get it, makes your little heart soar. It’s a tricky game.

How did your family react to seeing your work on screen?

My mother is proud of me for not being addicted to hard drugs, so everything else is bonus. Truly, she only wants me to be happy. She doesn’t quite get the passion I have for writing and directing, but she knows how it fulfils me, so she is pleased to see things paying off for me in small ways. I was hugely anxious to watch the film on screen. You never know how things will be received, you can only try your best with the resources you have.

Was it difficult to find the cast that could execute your vision?

I have a lot of opinions about the dearth of professionally trained non-white actors and crew. It begins way back with kids at school when they are thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Things like class, privilege, cultural pressure, lack of opportunities, all contribute to the inevitable decision against a career in the arts. Being proactive about finding cast from underrepresented backgrounds is something I think producers could be better at, but Sleena Wilson, the producer of Chicken, did a wonderful job with her callouts. And for the character of Rita, there could only be PNG actor Wendy Mocke – fearless and determined. 

Was it deliberate that you had an all-female cast, and if so, why?

I didn’t consciously think about it, but when I look at my other work, it is dominated by female characters. My world contains many powerful female presences, so I just naturally reflect that in my writing. 

Behind the scenes during filming of Chicken (2019)

I thought this could be a TV show. Is this something that you’ve considered? 

Haha, well I wrote a TV series called Home Is a Foreign Country, which featured the same characters and world. It starts with them arriving in Australia, and goes more into Barbara’s school life, Rita working at a nursing home and the experiences of the mother and daughter as they try to learn how to be in this strange, new place. It may or may not happen. The industry is fickle. 

I noticed that a lot of your work centres on childhood and the expression of that voice. Why is that? I read your story ‘Smoke and Fire’ and it was breathtaking.

Oh wow, you read that? That was also based on a real story. I made a friend back in the day who was the relative of our gardener/security guard. She and I would play, but her life was not like mine, I won’t say what she endured, it’s too hard to say. Suffice to say children deserve a childhood, and I wish adults wouldn’t ruin it.

Your comedy always seems to have a deeper message. Is that a conscious choice? 

The comedy has always been a response to the serious stuff. It’s hard to cope without laughing at regular intervals. But poetry, rap, music in general – and dance, always dance – feel like a portal to the sublime, like you can connect with people through some weird other subconscious channel. Shit’s painful, but if we can make a connection to other people, something good can come out of the pain. 

Your hilarious ‘Kweens of Comedy’ sketch reassures me that your creative process hasn’t been halted by the lockdown. How have you been coping otherwise and has it impacted any opportunities?

I suspect this has been a year of introspection for most people. I quit my day job at the end of last year to knuckle down and write, write, write. So I’ve been working away, and that particular sketch was the culmination of being trapped with own silly thoughts for many moons. Your research is impressive, and makes me highly self-conscious. In terms of any opportunities that didn’t come to pass, the experience of having a short film in festivals is vastly different from previous years, when you might have networked or been exposed to other people’s work. 

Behind the scenes during filming of Chicken (2019)

What has your experience of being a woman in this industry been and are you optimistic about the future of women from your background?

Yes, I am perpetually optimistic. It’s a terrible curse. I would say working in this industry is a slog, regardless of your background, but in Australia the same companies, broadcasters and executives were making decisions about what they thought the audience wanted, which was pretty darn male, white, straight and able-bodied. I think that is shifting radically. People are being held accountable for their bias.

Any advice for young filmmakers?

Have a multi-pronged approach: experience, training and initiatives/competitions. Get the experience by working on your content, either writing, shooting with a phone or volunteering on other people’s projects. Get some training, a short or long course, read a book, soak up the existing wisdom from practitioners you admire, just be open to learning. And submit your work to the endless competitions and initiatives out there, be careful of the ones that cost money, and remember it’s not about the outcome but the process. Love what you do, and try to do it more. 

Have you got any more work coming out that people should look out for?

I would love to say that people can check out my feature film directorial debut in September of next year but that would technically be lying. So I’ll just say, not right now, no. However, all offers are welcome. 

  • Chicken premiered at the Australian short film festival Flickerfest in January 2020, winning the award for best direction. It also screened at the 64th BFI London Film Festival. To find out where Chicken will be screening next, follow Chicken Short Film on Facebook.