Whatever delight there is to be found in tickling, it is inextricably linked with the obverse sensation: to be tickled is also an unpleasant feeling. Even though we know it not to be physically harmful, we still find the act too much to bear. So what is to be made of the ‘competitive endurance tickling’ videos that can be found online? This so-called sport is the initial subject of David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s documentary Tickled, which begins as a Louis Theroux-esque look at a niche fetish, but gradually uncovers something far more sinister.
Farrier, a journalist from New Zealand, finds his interest piqued by the videos of athletic young men tickling each other and decides to investigate further. But when he reaches out to the company behind these videos, Jane O’Brien Media, he receives extremely hostile and abusive messages, even threats of legal action, in response. Rather than being repelled, this only serves to heighten Farrier’s curiosity. Hoping to discover who exactly is bankrolling all these tickling videos Farrier and Reeve travel to the United States, where they encounter further intimidation, reticence from their subjects and meet some genial pornographers along the way.
However, the further they venture into this world, the more strange and intimidating it seems. One interviewee reveals his role as a fixer, soliciting suitable young men to participate in bouts of tickling on camera. He describes a disturbing setup where vulnerable individuals from low income areas, are enticed by large sums of cash and expensive gifts into taking part. We are told that similar ‘tickling cells’ exist not just across the United States but around the world and that a single, mysterious individual could be behind the entire industry.
As the documentary progresses, a disturbing web of online harassment and bullying is unveiled. A young man named TJ, the sole participant who agreed to be interviewed on camera, tells of how he tried to have a video of his tickling session removed from YouTube. However, as soon as he had it successfully taken down, this only served to initiate a surfeit of abuse. The video began popping up on dozens of other websites and was sent to friends and relatives. The attacks became extremely personal and probably resulted in the destruction of his chances in becoming a professional football player. Unfortunately his story isn’t unique.
Half the entertainment from Tickled lies in the various plot twists along the way, so I’ll refrain from revealing anything further here, but there are some problems with the film too. Farrier and Reeve do a good job of navigating a labyrinthine world of online personas and reclusive individuals, but there is still an elusiveness to this story. Out of the hundred or so participants in the tickling videos that they approached, only one felt comfortable enough to be interviewed and much of the background information is filled in by local journalists who reported on the story. Similarly, a detour into the life and work of professional tickling fetish filmmaker, Richard Ivey, whilst entertaining, doesn’t add much to the overall picture. Given the film’s brisk running time this does feel somewhat like filler.
Ultimately Tickled doesn’t have a grand denouement or access to its main subject in the same way as other recent documentaries, such as The Jinx, had and suffers for it. As the film reaches its conclusion, we are possibly left with more questions than answers but this is still an intriguing documentary about an offbeat subject.
Tickled is available to watch exclusively at the IFI. See the trailer below.
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