Shown at Sundance and picked up by HBO in the States, tonight’s New Zealand-produced documentary TICKLED may not have picked up that many Moas last weekend but damn, it’s good.
Critically acclaimed worldwide and funded by Kickstarter and the NZ Film Commission with help from the likes of Stephen Fry, the film follows ex-TV3 staffer (and generally wonderful person IMHO) David Farrier as he stumbles upon online film clips showing the phenomenon of “competitive endurance tickling”. Think athletic young men, suitably attired, sitting astride each other, tickle fingers and feathers at the ready. So far, so funny yes? Want to know more?
Well, Farrier did too...delving a little deeper until he found an online ad recruiting “male athletic and fitness models (aged 18-25)" for "situations in which attractive, ticklish, and masculine guys are actually tickled in two different restrained formats”. Naturally, his curiosity was piqued. Still ensconced at the New Zealand television network’s Eden Terrace media factory at the time, Farrier thought it looked like a bit of giggle (and might get him a free trip to LA) and decided to write a lighthearted feature about it. Prolific on social media, he sent the group behind the videos a cheeky DM asking what they were all about.
Mates of his like me followed the story with much delight; all set for many a LOL moment, and then some. But the response to his request for an interview was so unexpected – a barrage of emails and DMs spiking with vitriol, legal threats and homophobia – that Farrier decided to dig deeper, and the dark, twisted story that began to emerge was definitely worth more than a three-minute late news clip.
It turned out that sinister forces are at work in the world of recreational tickling, and TICKLED takes us on an unmissable, increasingly dark journey. In fact, many of us warned Farrier to back off as things became increasingly nasty at a level beyond what was included in the finished product, and even without that, the film becomes akin to watching a car crash happen. I liken the tale to the truly disturbing FOXCATCHER, the brilliant movie telling the true story of wealthy heir John du Pont (played creepily by Steve Carell), who invites Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to move to his estate and help form a wrestling team for the 1988 Olympics. Both FOXCATCHER and TICKLED examine what happens when obsession, creepy personas and extreme wealth come together. In the FOXCATCHER tale, Schultz soon realised that he was just another one of the millionaire's collectibles (Du Pont owned some of the world's rarest stamps, and had a collection of two million shells and 100,000 stuffed birds), whilst many of the boys popping up online in competitive tickling videos feel completely violated.
As it goes on, the film explores possible legal and ethical issues with certain individuals making the videos, and Farrier is told by associates of the man supposedly behind the empire that he is putting his “head in a blast furnace”. As a result of accusations made in TICKLED, Farrier and his producers are still facing a barrage of legal threats from powerful figures their film accuses of being behind the videos, which increase in their ferocity almost by the day. One even attended a Sundance screening of the film, loudly taking notes. “The audience around him are watching him onscreen, and he’s sitting next to them, and that created a certain uncomfortable atmosphere in that part of the cinema. It was a 4D experience for them, almost,” Farrier told the press at the time. Private investigators were thrown out of another screening after being caught with cameras in a coffee cup with which they were trying to make a copy of the film, lawsuits were filed on the filmmakers at another. Utter madness.
The Guardian said of TICKLED “the fetish documentary goes from giggly to grim", but it is so much more than that – it’s a work in progress, if you will. Watch it now, and make up your own mind.
TICKLED premieres Thursday 23 February on Rialto Channel SKY TV 039