Tickled follows the journey of New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier as he investigates the fetish subculture devoted to tickling.
The Internet is for porn, as a song in Avenue Q advises us, and that’s especially true if your taste runs to the fetishistic. Every pot has its lid, as the saying goes, but if what you like is somewhat outside the mainstream, it may be hard to find others of similar persuasion at your friendly neighborhood bar. But on the Internet, you have the whole world in which to seek what you are finding and can remain safely anonymous while doing so. The documentary Tickled follows the journey of New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier as he investigates the fetish subculture devoted to tickling.
It all starts when Farrier sees an online video from “Jane O’Brien Media” offering an all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles for men interested in participating in “Competitive Endurance Tickling” (which involves hunky young guys being restrained and tickled by other hunky young guys). Farrier thought this subculture would make a good story (in journalism, he tells us, he has “made a career of looking at the weird and bizarre side of life”). You might expect a subculture devoted to tickling to be light-hearted and a little weird, but Farrier’s initial inquires were met with a rude and homophobic response (Farrier is an out gay man), and those emails were followed up with many others claiming that competitive tickling is “an exclusively heterosexual activity.”
Farrier enlists Dylan Reeve (co-director with Farrier of this film) to investigate Jane O’Brien Media further, discovering, among other things, that it is owned by a German company that also owns over 300 domain names devoted to tickling. They blog about their discoveries, drawing worldwide attention, and then decide to make a documentary about the tickling subculture. At the same time, communications from Jane O’Brien Media move from abusive to threatening, including notices that legal action had been filed against them in the United States.
These attempts at intimidation only convince Farrier and Reeve to proceed, and they fly to Los Angeles only to discover that almost no one featured on the tickling videos (they tried contacting over 100 men and boys) is willing to talk to them. One who does , TJ, relates that he was told the videos were part of a research project. A year later, he sees a video of himself posted to YouTube, he asks that it be removed. YouTube does remove the video, but suddenly TJ is receiving threats from an unknown source and far more explicit videos of himself turn up on the internet, along with personal information including his name, address, and email. False accusations that he is a drug addict and child abuser are also posted, threatening his career as a football player and coach. Clearly tickling is not just fun and games, at least not where Jane O’Brien Media is concerned.
On a more cheerful note, Farrier and Reeve find a tickling fetishist named Richard Ivey who is willing to appear on camera, show off his gear, and discuss why he likes tickling (he sees it as a mild form of bondage and domination). Ivey supports himself (very nicely) with the revenue from his tickling site, but still allows the filmmakers to record a tickling session, excerpts of which are presented within this film. Unfortunately, as Farrier and Reeve discover, Ivey’s cheerful and non-coercive approach is the exception rather than the rule.
Tickled is narrated by Farrier, and he and Reeve frequently appear on camera, but they’re such genial presences (as opposed to, say, Michael Moore) that they never become annoying. Their approach of leading you down the path of discovery they followed is also perfect for the story they have to tell, and if it were presented in traditional talking heads and voice of God narration you probably wouldn’t believe it anyway. Tickled is an attractive and well-constructed film, and the directors employ all the documentarian’s tricks for making talking interesting on screen, pairing interviews and narration with location shots, close-ups of documents, clips of hands typing on a keyboard, and such. It’s a bitter little world Farrier and Reeve uncover, but this film is not at all bitter—instead, it’s an example of investigative journalism at its finest. | Sarah Boslaugh