Often the best documentaries are the ones that end up taking a different direction than originally planned. With Tickled, that left-turn occurred slightly before they decided to make a film, when New Zealand journalist David Farrier stumbled upon the little-known ‘sport’ of competitive tickling.
Known for reporting on unusual, quirky subjects, he fired off an email to the company behind the ‘tournaments’, Jane O’Brien Media, only to be met with threats of lawsuits, and an immediate obsession with the fact Farrier is gay. The woman writing back to him was adamant there was nothing gay about competitive tickling, despite the fact only young, often shirtless men were involved and the whole thing seemed, well, pretty gay. The messages from Jane O’Brien Media got more extreme, anti-Semitic and homophobic, and it was only at that point a decision was taken to make a documentary.
As the film opens, Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve realise there is probably more to the story, but have no idea where that might lead them. Things quickly get more intense when the threats from Jane O’Brien Media increase, legal letters are sent and a team of lawyers head to New Zealand to try and convince (many would say, threaten) David and Dylan that if they don’t leave things alone, people with very deep pockets will make their lives miserable.
Determined to find out more they head to the US, where they discover the vast majority of the young men who’ve appeared in the tickling videos won’t talk to them, but those few who will, tell a disturbing story. These often naïve and sometimes underage young men were wooed by money and presents. Everything was fine until they complained about something to Jane O’Brien Media or stopped acceding to their demands. At that point an almost obsessional vendetta was launched against them, with threats to destroy their lives, ruin their reputations and hurt their families – and it quickly turned out they weren’t hollow threats, with one young man recounting how messages were sent to employers accusing him of being a pervert, a slew of websites were set up with his tickle videos plastered all over them (something he never agreed to), and letters and aggressive messages sent to his family.
As Dylan and David investigate further, things get ever more disturbing. They realise the person behind it all has used various personas and appears to have a dangerous, decades long obsession with tickling videos, as well as a need for power and control that verges on the psychotic. Even a spell in jail didn’t stop them, with vast amounts of money allowing them to feel vaguely untouchable (even when the law did catch up with them, they only got a slap on the wrist compared to what they could have been charged with). Lives have come close to ruin, obscene amounts of cash spent, young and poor men around the globe exploited and threatened, and all apparently due to a desire to watch people being tickled.
It is a truly bizarre tale that would seem absurd and faintly ridiculous if it were fiction. The film likes to describe the person behind it all as a bully, but that’s a bit of an understatement – this is someone who has gone much further than that. In many ways the documentary becomes their comeuppance, as it was their litigious, threatening and over the top behaviour that not only helped ensure the film got made in the first place, but also that it got far more attention on its release than it would otherwise. In fact, there are a times when Tickled is almost a masterclass in how to misjudge the media you’re dealing with.
Those revealed to be behind Jane O’Brien Media turned up at the movie’s LA premiere (although they still dispute they are behind it), while representatives attended various other screenings, presumably hoping to further intimidate the filmmakers or find fodder for litigation. What they actually ended up doing was creating a bit of a media firestorm and huge amounts of extra publicity for the film. The litigious tickle-lover continues to use tricks that have largely succeeded for them for decades, but doesn’t quite seem to realise that in this context they’re just making things worse for themselves.
The filmmakers are facing defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuits, something that’s limited what they’ve been able to say on the promotional trail, but it has certainly helped market the movie, with newspapers, magazine and TV intrigued by what’s been happening. You would think the person issuing the lawsuits would have realised by now they’d be better off shutting up and waiting for the dust to settle, but as the documentary shows, there’s a need for control and a seeming delight in using power and money to bring others down that probably won’t allow their ego to do that.
It’s a truly fascinating and disturbing tale, both in terms of what it reveals has been going on, and how it shows that money, family reputation, and power really can allow people to get away with things normal people never could.
To be honest, I’m hoping I don’t get sued over this review, as watching the doc it’s easy to believe I’ll be getting papers through the post just for talking about it. So, may I just point out that, of course, there is absolutely nothing gay about young men crawling all over one another and tickling each other. It’s utterly impossible to think otherwise, and the tickling fetish sites out there that say they’re about gay eroticism (one of which features in the film, along with a rather hot guy getting tickled), are confused.
However, as the end of documentary suggests, perhaps there’s more to this ‘not gay’ insistence than that a homoerotic association might scare off the straight young guys participating in Jane O’Brien Media’s tournaments, and it’s more to do with one person’s damaged psyche and internalised homophobia that can get very vicious if threatened.
Overall Verdict: Bizarre and at time almost absurd, Tickled is a documentary that initially just seems like it’s going to be a bit quirky and odd, but gets increasingly strange and disturbing as it continues. A fascinating ride.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac