New Zealand journalist David Farrier (TV series Short Poppies) has made a career out of looking at the weird side of life. But even he was unprepared for the fallout after stumbling upon a website about “competitive endurance tickling” in which young men were paid to be tied up and tickled, complete with some videos. Although the on-line videos were pretty harmless, they piqued his curiosity as it sounded a bit kinky. Farrier decided to find out more.
But when he contacted Jane O’Brien Media to try and arrange an interview he was harassed and threatened with lawsuits from a high powered US firm, who ordered him to cease and desist. They also sent homophobic email messages and threats and even sent representatives down to New Zealand to intimidate Farrier. Their secretive and aggressive manner intrigued Farrier even further and he decided to probe beneath the surface. He and his collaborator, writer/filmmaker and computer expert Dylan Reeve, discovered a vaguely sinister side to this tickling fetish as they travelled to Los Angeles and New York in search of the mysterious owners of the website.
What began as a light hearted investigation into something that initially seemed vaguely homoerotic but innocuous slowly turns into a thriller as Farrier and Reeve try to probe beneath a web of corporate paperwork to find out the identity of the mysterious figures behind Jane O’Brien Media. Farrier and Reeve faced many challenges in trying to bring their film to the screen, not the least of which were the constant threats of lawsuits from the faceless people behind Jane O’Brien Media. Farrier and Reeve eventually track down the mysterious David D’Amato, who ruthlessly ran the tickling video empire. He was the son of the founder of a powerful law firm, but also had something of a shady history.
Farrier talks to a couple of former tickle participants who talk about being blackmailed and threatened and are too scared to talk about their experiences. He also visits a “tickling den” in Florida, where he learns more about this unusual fetish. He also talks to a photographer/filmmaker called Richard Ivey who provides a few insights into this shady business.
By turns amusing and gripping, Tickled gives us a look at the darker side of the internet and a vaguely unsettling subculture, and may remind some audiences of the documentary Catfish from a couple of years ago. This is thriller that explores themes of power, control, harassment, fetishism, corruption, identity theft, and criminal activity, and the creepy underbelly of the internet.
Tickled is the first feature length documentary from Farrier, and he has an amiable on-screen presence that is reminiscent of the likes of Morgan Spurlock or Louis Theroux, but he also demonstrates a dogged sense of purpose as he refuses to back down from threats and intimidation as he gets closer to learning the identity of the people behind this unusual enterprise.
Tickled is a strange and decidedly weird little documentary that is unexpectedly compelling and surprisingly entertaining.
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television