When 3 News reporter David Farrier comes across a website promoting “Competitive Endurance Tickling”, he thinks he has a perfect ‘And Finally…’ story for the program. But after receiving homophobic slurs and legal threats from the American company behind the site, he embarks on a bizarre, disturbing investigation.
With its initially jaunty music and chin-stroke-while-raising-eyebrow tone, New Zealand documentary Tickled starts out like it’s going to be a bit of a lark. Amiable, speccy and a little bit Louis Theroux-ish, co-director David Farrier is a TV news reporter who specialises in what he describes as “light entertainment” pieces. “I’ve made a career out of looking at the weird side of life,” he narrates at the opening. But here the weird side takes him far away from the light. Gradually, insidiously, as Farrier digs deeper, the lark turns dark.
Farrier's film feels like one of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends spliced with a conspiracy thriller.
First, you have the ‘sport’ itself. Competitive Endurance Tickling, it transpires, involves one participant (usually a young, buff, attractive man) being bound, prone and spread-eagled. Then other participants (usually young, buff, attractive men), straddle him and, yes, tickle him, while he yelps, bleats, swears and somehow doesn’t wet himself. But, while Farrier spends a little time investigating this fetish (for that is what it truly is), and as unsettling as you may find it, that’s not really the point of his film. In truth, his focus is on Jane O’Brien Media, the company behind the website which sparked his investigation, and which is so keen to keep him out of its business it flies a team from the US to New Zealand to meet Farrier and scare him off. “If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace,” one of them says, “do it”.
What transpires is a horrible, sad tale of exploitation (one of the ‘competitors’ even says, “I was young… desperate,” and needed the $2000 he was offered to be strapped down and tickled on video), as Farrier pulls back the curtain on Jane O’Brien Media.
It’s a crazy, rolling-snowball narrative which takes you someplace totally unexpected, and at times it becomes genuinely disturbing. Though Farrier drops the pace during the latter half and overplays his reveal, it feels like one of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends spliced with a conspiracy thriller. Tickling, it seems, is no laughing matter.
Like Stories We Tell or Dig!, Tickled subverts your expectations. Definitely strange rather than ha-ha.