A New Zealand journalist stumbles into the weird world of competitive endurance tickling videos, and uncovers an increasingly dark and disturbing story
Directors: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve
Starring: David Farrier, Dylan Reeve, TJ, Richard Ivey, Brian LaChance, David Starr
Country: New Zealand
Release date: August 19, 2016
Running time: 92 mins
A hit at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, this jaw-dropping documentary from New Zealand directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve is one of those films where the less you know going in, the better.
Following in the tradition of Catfish (as well as equally gripping mystery docs like The Imposter and Tabloid), it presents an initially amusing and light-hearted story that suddenly turns into something much darker and more disturbing.
Tickling, it seems, is no laughing matter.
A chilling dimension
When openly gay Auckland journalist Farrier (the New Zealand equivalent of Louis Theroux) stumbles upon a story about the world of “competitive endurance tickling”, he thinks he’s found his latest quirky news piece.
However, his initial enquiries into Jane O’Brien Media – the company that produces videos of athletic young men tickling each other – are met with bizarre homophobic slurs (especially given the blatantly homoerotic nature of the videos) and threats of lawsuits if he pursues the story.
Naturally, this only serves to pique his interest still further, so he heads to America to investigate, along with co-director Reeve.
Farrier quickly discovers that tickling isn’t really a sport and that each of the participants have been paid large sums of money to appear in the videos.
However, while the tickling competitions themselves are clearly just an excuse for a relatively mild sub-set of fetish videos, it’s also apparent that the films themselves don’t actually generate any money, which is strange, given the enormous amounts of cash that go into making them.
Like a conspiracy thriller
A further chilling dimension is added when it turns out that, firstly, the participants are afraid to speak out for fear of the videos being made public (something that’s already happened on multiple occasions), and secondly, that there are apparently so-called “Tickle Cells” all over the world, at which point the film starts to feel like a conspiracy thriller.
But is there an extortion angle involved or is something much weirder going on?
Part of the fun of the film involves the nuts and bolts of the operation being gradually revealed, with Farrier and Reeve employing some satisfying old-school detective skills (stake-outs, chasing paper trails, etc) in the pursuit of their story.
However, it’s also genuinely unsettling, particularly as the threats become more personal, while the eventual reveal is both surprising and generates an unexpected note of pathos.
This is a hugely entertaining, smartly paced mystery doc that tells a fascinating story about a very dark corner of the internet. Recommended.