This one's a Must-see!

This one’s a Must-see!

Discomforting, yet hypnotizingly weird.

Discomforting, yet hypnotizingly weird.

Tickled (described as a “fetish documentary that’s no laughing matter”) may be one of the strangest and most intriguing documentaries of this decade. A series of Internet videos that showcase a sport known as “Competitive Endurance Tickling” (I’m sure you’re all picturing it correctly based on the name so I’ll be loose on the details) is baffling enough as it is. But once you try to make contact with this bemusing pocket dimension of sports and entertainment, horrible revelations are made and your reputation is endangered. And yes, that last one goes beyond trying to explain your web browser history to your girlfriend afterwards.

Competitive Endurance Tickling.

Competitive Endurance Tickling.

It all begins when a New Zealand filmmaker named David Farrier comes across the aforementioned tickling videos and finds a connection to the Facebook page of “Jane O’Brein Media”. Understandably confused but also curious, Farrier sends a message to the Facebook page, hoping to schedule an interview with the people behind the phenomenon. He explains to the viewer that he specializes in documentaries about all things strange in this world, and with this find, he knew that he had found his next story.

The responses he receives, however, are unexpected. The Jane O’Brein page admins, including one who’s supposedly Jane herself, repeatedly email Farrier (after already having turned his offers down) about how Competitive Tickling is an exclusively heterosexual activity and that they want no association with a famously homosexual journalist (I ponder as to how they must feel now that their story has been successfully exposed not only by a gay director but also associate producer Stephen Fry). Their messages are outright hostile, even going so far so to calling him “a gay kiwi” and a faggot. “It was hard to take the insults seriously, given what Jane was producing,” Farrier rightly remarks, “If anything, it made me more curious than ever.”

When then see how Farrier’s further investigation and subsequent social media attention caused the “Tickling” fad to enter the limelight, inspiring Farrier to start working on a documentary film with his detective partner and fellow filmmaker Dylan Reeve. It is by this points that he begins receiving bizarre threats of legal action all the way from New York (at one point he meets with American lawyers who do not under any circumstances want to be filmed but also don’t seem sure of who they’re working for) and Jane O’Brein Media starts trying to bully him into silence. His ambition remains, however, and the deeper he digs into this absurd “sport”, the true origins of it, and what the production companies behind the tickling videos truly did to most of their recruits/subjects (including leaked personal info and lies about sexual depravity, all for something the accusers themselves directed and recorded), the more unpleasant it all looks.

ticklersOn top of its achievements in cinematography and editing (especially innovative was the makeshift hidden camera Farrier had to construct out of a coffee mug when meeting with one of the shady lawyers a second time), Tickled is fascinating, amusing, shocking, and infuriating. You may laugh at how weird and borderline cringe-worthy some of the featured videos are, you will be fascinated at how hellbent their producers seem on keeping the subject matter under wraps from the general public, and you will probably also be a little bit frustrated once we start learning what sort of people run the operations and what their worldviews and motivations are.

The film is presented in the Participatory Mode of documentary filmmaking (as described by film theoretician Bill Nichols), where the filmmakers themselves feature in the movie and the audience gets to observe them as they perform their interviews and, in this case, handle their sinister opposition. It’s an appropriate form of presentation since the obstacles and the attacks they faced turned into such a major part of the story. A film that simply told us the facts via Voice of God would not have been as good.

Even after the movie had a screening at Sundance Film Festival back in March, things were dramatic behind-the-scenes. David D’Amato, a big shot in the tickling video industry with a less than spotless crime sheet, filed a lawsuit against Farrier for spreading misinformation about him through his documentary. The way I see it, I don’t know that there’s a lot in Tickled that can be misinterpreted or taken the wrong way.

Tickled has been lauded worldwide as a courageous achievement in journalism and meaningful to free speech, but also important in what unsettling truths it uncovers. The fact that this has supposedly been going on for several decades and still passed under the radar of just about everyone is about as disconcerting as the content of the videos themselves, and I’m grateful that we got to see this dark subculture for what it is. Any time free speech and true journalism wins the day, I feel like the world is a marginally better place.

Then I remember that freedom of expression also allows for a fair share of bullshit “journalism” that people WANT to believe in regardless of the facts, and that that’s why we get documentaries like Vaxxed. Why didn’t the makers of that movie receive a bunch of threats again? This may be a shot in the dark, but could it be because they weren’t actually uncovering anything and that there’s nothing to expose when there’s nothing to hide? I guess we may never know.

5/5 whatever

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