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Ruffled Feathers…Film Documents Rooster Fighting Culture

Ruffled Feathers

Hawai`i filmmaker turns lens on cockfight culture


June 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Honolulu Advertiser. All rights reserved. 

Stephanie Castillo was in the fifth grade when she saw her first cockfight.

It was a Sunday, the award-winning documentary maker recalls, and her family had followed a dusty road down to a makeshift building in Kealia, an old plantation village near Kapa`a, Kaua`i. There were card tables around the perimeter of the room and a kitchen where Filipino food was prepared. And there was, of course, the pit where the roosters fought, a modest space illuminated by a shaft of light coming through the open ceiling.

"It was the strangest experience, but I can't look at it with a horrified eye," Castillo recalls. "I wasn't horrified, because every week my grandmother would grab a chicken, chop off its head, and that was what we ate for dinner. It was part of what I saw growing up."

Though she acknowledges cockfighting as a part of her heritage, Castillo says she can neither support nor condemn its reportedly expansive, largely secretive practice. Her desire, explored in depth in the soon-to-be-released DVD set "Cockfighters: The Interviews," is to understand cockfighting from the perspective of the people who breed and fight the birds.

Traveling to 10 states during summer 2000, Castillo collected interviews with more than 30 cockfighters and breeders. The result is an exhaustive eight-hour package that offers insights into the cockfighting subculture that are rarely addressed in the continuing push to outlaw the sport.

In light of a new federal law that makes it illegal to transport game birds for the purpose of fighting in other states, the interviews may also serve as a final first-hand record of the controversial sport before it is driven deeper underground. (Cockfighting is now legal in only two states: Louisiana and New Mexico).

"I had no plans for who would talk to me," she said. "I was not looking for a particular point of view or for (the project) ... to even have a point of view. I wanted to ask the questions, `What, really, is cockfighting?' and `Why do you do it?' I think this will make people question the stereotypes. Even if they come away with the same opinion, their opinion will be better informed."

Castillo says her inquiry grew out of her own desire to understand more fully the cockfighting lifestyle to which her grandfather devoted so much of his life.

Juan Castillo emigrated to Hawai`i from the Philippines in the 1920s, bringing with him a passion for breeding fighting cocks. He joined a hui, pooling money with other cockfighters to buy Mainland-bred red roosters via an intermediary in Hanalei, Kaua`i. Like the cockfighters his granddaughter interviewed, Juan Castillo enjoyed raising and preparing the birds more than the actual fighting. Like other breeders, he made modest money from his efforts, enough to cover the cost of feeding and housing the roosters.

Stephanie Castillo, whose `Olena Productions co-produced the Emmy-Award-winning documentary "Simple Courage," started the cockfighters project right after completing a Master of Business Administration program at the University of Hawai`i in May 2000.

With a $70,000 donation from a local benefactor, Castillo bought digital video equipment and started trolling for interview subjects. When her attempts to get local cockfighters to speak on camera brought little success, she turned to the Internet to tap into the community of more than 200,000 cockfighters and breeders that is said to exist on the Mainland.

"I told them my grandfather was a cockfighter, and that seemed to put them at ease," she says. "They call it a fraternity, and that's really what it is."

From June to September of that year, Castillo and a couple of hired cameramen (she filmed the last third of the interviews herself) traveled across the country talking to people like James Pope, owner of the Cedar Ridge Game Farm in Texas; breeder Charlie Johnson of Arkansas; and Mississippi breeding legend Johnnie Jumper.

"My grandfather and father took me to (cockfighting) pits in Hawai`i, so I knew what they were like," Castillo says. "I was more interested in the legal side. It turned out to be less predictable, and I was surprised by a lot of things I saw."

In a 12-minute short film and a 115-minute, six-interview mini-documentary using footage from the full-length series, Castillo presents a disarming look at the history, legends and traditions of cockfighting in America, as passed along through generations of "cockers." Her subjects talk about the popularity of the sport in colonial America, using birds brought over from England, and about how the fighting cock was a close second to the bald eagle in the competition to be national bird. They trace bloodlines of elite breeds throughout the cockfighting world (with numerous intersections in Hawai`i) and the human connections forged through a common love.

"Their experience is that defending cockfighting to outsiders doesn't make any difference," Castillo says. "But if people are willing to go in with an open mind, if they're willing to listen, these cockfighters are willing to share."

Allowed to speak for themselves, the cockfighters come off as mild, decent people, closer in spirit and interest to horse racers or dog breeders than to the bloodsport profiteers sometimes depicted in the media. "Bacon" Nivison of Utah talks about how he is "emotionally attached" to his birds. Johnson, the breeder from Arkansas, speaks warmly about the friends he's made in Hawai`i, with whom he exchanges visits.

Castillo did manage to interview four Hawai`i residents, including Paul "No Ka Oi" Romias of Wai`anae, who speaks earnestly about the peculiarities of the local scene; the movement of fighting cocks between the Mainland, Hawai`i and the Philippines (where cockfighting is considered the national sport); and the mundane business of caring for the birds.

There is no graphic violence in the shortened version The Advertiser viewed (there is some rather tame footage from a pit in the Philippines), and Castillo did not film any illegal pits.

The raw footage sat for more than two years while Castillo worked on other projects and explored options for release. She finally edited the footage down to an eight-hour collection (intended mainly for cockfighting enthusiasts and for academic and historical reference) and the movie/mini-documentary (intended for film festivals and possible television broadcast) during a seven-week marathon of 12- to 16-hour workdays earlier this year. The punishing schedule allowed Castillo to keep her editing, duplicating and authoring costs to about $40,000.

Looking back, Castillo says the project gave her a better understanding of the type of life her grandfather lived. It did not resolve her ambivalence about the sport.

"I can't be for or against it. It is my cultural heritage," she says. "But on the other hand, I hate to see animals hurt or killed. It's a difficult paradox to live with."

The movie and mini-documentary will debut at the Cinema Paradise film festival in Honolulu in September.

Film Documents Rooster Fighting Culture

September 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

SUNSET, La. (AP) -- As Stephanie Castillo grew up in Hawaii, she wondered more and more if her grandfather was evil for raising and fighting roosters.

``Because I had heard the humane society and animal-rights activists talk about these people like they were demons, I wondered if my grandfather was one of these demons,'' she said.

Finding the answers led her to create a documentary, ``Cockfighters: The Interviews,'' which features interviews with breeders and cockfighters from Louisiana, Hawaii, Mississippi and other states.

Castillo, a former reporter at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, showed her 8-hour movie here recently at the Sunset Recreation Club's Cajun Classic cockfight derby.

The movie includes a tour of the Sunset club and brief scenes of cockfights from Puerto Rico and the Philippines. She was not allowed to film fights in the continental United States.

``I didn't want to focus on the cockfights because the breeders were telling me that's such a small part,'' she said. ``They do talk about them, but they talk more about the bloodlines, the pedigree breeds, the history, their interest in what they do and why they do it.''

She said she now believes her grandfather was taking part in a rich Filipino cultural tradition. Cockfighting is among that country's most popular sports, with matches held nearly everyday.

``They see themselves as part of a heritage and a cultural tradition that goes back a long time,'' she said.

One breeder interviewed is Jim Demourelle of Ville Platte, who has been breeding and raising game fowl for 45 years. He said the documentary is the first time cockfighters' side has been presented without being colored by the views of animal rights activists.

Animal rights advocates have long held that cockfighting is a brutal pastime. They reject cockfighters' argument that roosters are well treated and fight instinctively.

Jeff Dorson of the Humane Society of Louisiana said gambling is most people's main motive for being involved in cockfighting.

``This is all about betting, all about bragging rights,'' he said. ``If it happens to inflict injuries on animals, they don't seem to care. This is simply an enterprise that deals with betting.''

Cockfighting is illegal in all states except Louisiana and New Mexico. Oklahomans voted to ban cockfighting in 2002, but injunctions and temporary restraining orders by breeders have suspended enforcement of the law in about 30 of the state's 77 counties.

Cockfighters traditionally shy away from public attention, and Castillo said many refused to talk to her.

``They decided as a group of people to not call attention to themselves because they thought that was going to be the best way to do what they love to do without getting the wrath of the animal-rights people on them,'' Castillo said. ``They believe that all press is bad press.''


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