One would assume a documentary about tickling to be a somewhat innocent, funny, and strange peek into a niche fetish community. At least that's what I was expecting. I'm not the only who got more than they bargained for in the new documentary "Tickled."
After stumbling onto a website about tickling competitions, David Farrier, a pop culture reporter from New Zealand, and the director of the documentary, set his sights on revealing this weird fetish to his local audience. Upon digging further, his goal shifts from a lighthearted reveal to the responsibility of exposing an illegal, abusive organization which is preying on vulnerable young men all over the world.
Tickling competitions (for those not familiar) involve young men participating in a game of endurance wherein they are strapped down and tickled by numerous other young men, all in revealing gym clothing. When Farrier discovers that teenagers from New Zealand and elsewhere were being flown to the US to participate in these competitions (all expenses paid), he did what any good reporter would and stuck his nose into other people's business. He reached out to Jane O'Brien Media, the organization that sponsors the tickling competitions, for an interview. In response, Jane O'Brien Media almost immediately confronted him with an aggressive letter suggesting he and his bisexual preferences are perverted and he will not be granted an interview. This is a bit confusing due to the obviously homoerotic vibe of these tickling videos, but that's only the beginning of where this story gets bizarre.
Farrier quickly joins forces with fellow Kiwi and internet nerd Dylan Reeve (the co- director of the film) and they begin to dig. Reeve, having previously worked with internet service providers, knows how to access and research online data and started researching the history of this organization and its representative "Debra," with whom they've been corresponding. At this point, the layers slowly begin to unravel and the audience's awkward giggles fade. Before you know it, your seemingly innocent trip into a colorful rabbit hole of "weird stuff humans do" is transformed into a tornado of deception, greed, and control.
As Farrier went deeper into researching Jane O'Brien Media—often working from his couch with a live parrot on his shoulder—the offensive email attacks quickly turned into legal threats followed by a personal visit from two New York lawyers to his office in New Zealand. Farrier and Reeve opened up a Pandora's Box into the world of endurance tickling and it is not pretty.
Unwilling to back down despite the legal actions taken by Jane O'Brien Media, they head to America and begin interviewing people involved in the tickling ring. They fail in an attempt to sneak into a Jane O'Brien video shoot (held in some sketchy warehouse) so instead they find themselves in the house of a small-scale tickling entrepreneur—a mid-50's clean cut man living in Florida—and witness a "session." Allow me to paint the picture: The "client," a fit young man in his late teens, early 20s comes over, takes off his shirt, and gets strapped in for 20 minutes of non- stop, video-recorded tickling. The tickling involves the use of various objects including an electric toothbrush, feathers, and, of course, the Florida man's hands. Watching this attractive young man squirm and giggle while being dominated and tortured with no way to escape creates an incredibly voyeuristic scene that leaves Farrier visibly uncomfortable.
The film's success is rooted in the non-stop peeling back of layers of manipulation which draws the viewer deeper and deeper into the core of this disturbing world. As Farrier and Reeve continue to piece together the mystery of who is running the Jane O'Brien empire through accounts from its victims, it becomes clear that the organization is using money to target and manipulate a certain demographics— young, low-income boys—and then basically ruining many of their lives with the footage. It's like a psychological mystery thriller after-school special and the lesson is still, "don't talk to strangers."
The film is really a journey running through themes of domination, manipulation, the power of the internet, bullying, the dynamics in economic inequality and greed all rolled into one. It's an exposé that involves a real emotional roller-coaster and a must-see film. Especially if you want to laugh and then feel awkward for laughing, get mad, maybe laugh again, and perhaps shed a tear, too. Feel the feelings, see the film.