DIR: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve • PRO: Carthew Neal • DOP: Dominic Fryer • ED: Simon Coldrick • MUS: Rodi Kirkcaldy, Florian Zwietnig • CAST: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, David Starr
Never have the words “this tickling empire is bigger than we ever imagined” felt more ominous and unsettling. Tickling seems innocuous; to say you’re watching a documentary on tickling will undoubtedly have people bemusedly tilt their heads. What could be so sinister about tickling? David Farrier, New Zealand journalist and director of Tickled, asks the very same question in what becomes a surprisingly tense and uncomfortable documentary about online harassment
Farrier is mostly unknown outside of his home country. He’s a television reporter who does segments on pop culture, but is mostly known for reports on the quirky and bizarre side of New Zealand society. Stumbling upon a website dedicated to “Competitive Endurance Tickling,” he thinks he’s found his next report and asks for an interview with the production company, Jane O’Brien Media, but is greeted to a slew of homophobic and threatening emails that personally attack David for his sexuality. Footage from the website is shown which makes the sport of tickling even more bizarre. Young athletic men are cuffed down and strapped to beds while other young athletic men do the tickling. The whole thing feels like a surreal homoerotic experience, made more absurd when it’s discovered the men are treated to complimentary first-class plane tickets, hotel rooms, and $1,500-2,000 cash for having participated.
Things very quickly turn into All the President’s Men, as lawsuits are made and representatives fly to New Zealand to tell Farrier personally to stop digging around about Jane O’Brien Media. Men who participated in the tickling are too terrified to give interviews to Farrier, and suddenly it’s revealed that the people who’ve worked for Jane O’Brien media have never even seen her. One of the participants, TJ, recounts his personal experience of applying for a sports scholarship to college and finding the video of him on YouTube. He emailed Jane O’Brien Media to take it down, as he had not expressed permission, and when they failed to respond, he asked YouTube directly. Suddenly, Jane replied to make TJ an “outed gay guy” and the video was uploaded to every online video stream imaginable, with websites created with the sole intention of hosting it alongside his personal address, phone number, and e-mail. Colleges TJ applied for received letters from Jane O’Brien declaring TJ to be a child molester and drug addict, all of which impeded TJ in his personal life, as well as resulting in numerous lost jobs and expulsions from various football teams. That’s when the documentary truly begins to feel more like a horror story than a frivolous piece about tickling.
Tickled is the sort of documentary that has to be recounted in your head over and over again to comprehend that such an incredulous thing could even happen. It’s aware of its own absurdity and uses it to its advantage. The music and style feels borrowed from an action thriller, which creates a perfect dissonance with its subject matter so revelations and anecdotes feel more unbelievable than they already are. At its core, Tickled explores harassment and online abuse but captures the lengths that can be taken by some invidious and abhorrent people in a more effective method than any previous documentary on the same subject. It takes something as simple and deceptively harmless as tickling to fully grasp the possibility that someone can ruin another’s life at the push of a button.
That being said, Farrier has his own jabs at people, much to the discredit of the film. While the “eye-for-an-eye” revenge feels somewhat justified, it’s the treatment of tickling fetishists, paraded as unwell by association with Jane O’Brien Media, that detriments the documentary’s anti-bullying message. A trip down to Florida to learn more about Knismolagnia invites David to a live demonstration by a content and amiable man who makes a living producing tickling and foot fetish videos. As the demonstration occurs, Farrier’s face twists into confusion and revulsion, and then the viewer is greeted to uncomfortable music with overly-fetishized close-ups of the tickled body and the man’s leering smile at the bound, muscular participant in front of him. The effect is that the viewer shares in Farrier’s discomfort, turning a presumably friendly guy into a disturbing pervert. People are entitled to like what they like as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. Farrier seems to forget that while continuing his investigation into Jane O’Brien Media. But, such criticism is small in comparison to what the documentary gets right. Tickled is a brilliant mystery film and simply has to be seen to be believed.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Tickled is released 19th August 2016