Sometimes reality is far more bizarre than fiction. Sometimes you stumble across something that unravels and twists so unexpectedly and is so weird that you just couldn’t make it up. Such is the case when New Zealand journalist David Farrier, when looking into material for a light-hearted news segment, found a video that introduced him to the world of a sport called competitive endurance tickling. Getting in contact with the producers, a group called Jane O’Brien Media, for an interview, Farrier instead became the target of ongoing homophobic (Farrier is bisexual) harassment from a representative of the group. After publishing a story about the sport which then went viral and deciding to start a documentary with friend Dylan Reeve about the sport, Farrier then started receiving threats of legal action. Having had enough with these bullies, Farrier and Reeve started getting deeper and deeper into this strange corner of internet subculture, and found things that ended up in a very dark place.
This is a difficult movie to review, precisely because the best summary I can give is that it’s really good and you should watch it, but not tell you anything else because this is a film where going in as fresh as possible is only a good thing.
The key to any good documentary is to draw you into its subject, and Tickled does this with great skill, engaging your curiosity and keeping you guessing about what might happen next. It’s also very funny and you’ll find yourself laughing often, but it’s a laughter that will go from silly to bemused to uncomfortable to something done just to break the tension. And this film is tense. Whilst the videos themselves are fairly innocent in nature, it’s more what’s behind them that make them sinister, and as each new layer of the story is revealed and connections made you are baffled at how something like this network of depravity could have been operating so openly and so widely for so long. Farrier’s investigation even leads him right back to the earliest days of internet video sharing, and to a woman known by the online alias of Terri Tickle. It’s absurd that to think that this is a film investigating a worldwide tickling based exploitation conspiracy, but that’s exactly what it is. It’s all real and it’s all very, very, serious.
In the interest of fairness Farrier does interview someone who makes tickling videos exclusively for fetish websites. The tickling fetish is described here as being a tamer subset of BDSM, being focussed on having complete control over someone, and he is presented as normal with no condemnation for his business or personal preferences. This upfront attitude is in distinct contrast to the more shadowy individuals whose motives for making these videos are never explicitly said, but the ways they go about their business makes them more disturbing. In this sense the film also serves as yet another testament to the dangers of the internet, especially for young people. The men and teen boys who are brought into making these tickling videos with promises of extravagant payment, particularly tempting to those young men from low income areas, but when they attempt to get out, that’s when things become a living Hell of threats and harassment. The people that Farrier is attempting to uncover are just as fixated on control, even outside of watching it in the videos they produce.
Tickled is an absorbing watch that will have you on the edge of your seat in a way that you won’t expect, and could rival any modern conspiracy thriller.