A touch too much
Director David Farrier setout to make a film about the strange world of ‘competitive tickling’. Instead, what he discovered was a lot more bizarre and sinister, he tells Tara Brady
If we were to compose a lazy introductory soundbite, we might say that David Farrier is New Zealand’s Louis Theroux. The two investigators don’t look dissimilar: David was recently mistaken for Louis at the Toronto premiere of the latter’s incoming doc, My Scientology Movie.
Both, too, share a flare for the weird and wonderful: Theroux has ventured among swingers, UFOlogists and tiger-owners; Farrier presents a cryptozoology podcast with Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby, and has travelled extensively to investigate such mythical creatures as the Mongolian Death Worm and Chupacabra.
Farrier’s friends, he tells me, like to out-weird him by sending the freakiest things they stumble upon online. In this spirit, he was sent an odd online link in early 2014.
“An hour-long video, featuring six young men in Adidas sportswear. One of them was strapped down on a bed and the others were tickling him. It was honestly the weirdest thing I had seen in a long time. And it wasn’t a one-off thing. There were hundreds of these videos. There was a Facebook page with 22,000 likes. It was a whole, bizarre world of which I was completely unaware. And then everything that happened afterwards had made it more bizarre.”
Farrier had happened on the strange, crazily litigious world of “competitive endurance tickling”, the subject of a new documentary called Tickled. Working with the film’s co-director, Dylan Reeve, Farrier approached the mysterious company behind the videos – Jane O’Brien Media – only to be met with a series of homophobic slurs and legal threats.
“It began with a back-and-forth email exchange with Jane O’Brien Media and they seemed very angry about my sexual orientation,” recalls Farrier. “I sent back a mild email saying that my sexual orientation doesn’t affect the way I approach a story. And they became very irate. There were legal threats from different lawyers. And then there was just a wall of emails coming in all the time. That’s when we decided there’s more to this.”
Farrier and Reeve were not alone. Tickled traces a 20-year history of cyberbullying and intimidation. A familiar pattern emerges: Jane O’Brien Media advertises a monthly event called Competitive Endurance Tickling. The contest is open to young athletes, who, if selected, receive free air fare, hotel accommodations and$1,500. One former participant, TJ, outlines the extensive slander campaign that threatened his career after he objected to Jane O’Brien Media posting his footage on YouTube.
“Something about the film that really interests me is that this story stretches back almost 21 years,” says Ferrier. “In the last few years, we’ve become used to an army of tech-literate people – whether that’s Gamergate or those guys getting stuck into Ghostbusters – abusing the anonymity of the internet. Our film features one of the original internet bullies.”
Getting the victims to speak
TJ was an exception rather than the rule. Getting the victims to speak out proved difficult. Ferrier understands why. “The last time these people got involved with a random stranger online, it didn’t turn out so well. A lot of these people have been through some very intense experiences. They just wanted to keep the hell out of it. They’d speak to us off the record. But they were too scared to appear on camera.”
Tickled has already survived two defamation suits by the film’s elusive subject. Both have been dismissed.
“They were filed in Missouri and Utah ahead of the Sundance screening,” he says. “We’re still keeping an eye on the situation. During the process of making the film, it was very unclear where the threats were coming from. Since it has come out it has become a lot clearer who is involved.”
We shall say no more, as the film – which has already been tipped for an Oscar next year – un- foldsas a series of astonishing revelations, that take in an attack on the White House servers, a multi-million dollar inheritance, a 2001 computer fraud conviction and an FBI raid.
Between recounting these dramas, Ferrier and Reeve take the time to briefly profile Richard Ivey, an Orlando-based tickling entrepreneur who makes similar fetish videos, but without the pretence that it’s a sport and without threats to participants.
“We decided early on that we didn’t want to demonise the fetish,” says Ferrier. “It’s very easy to point and laugh at something. Especially when it seems a bit odd or a bit fruity. Especially when it’s tickling. It was important for us to meet Richard, who wasn’t being devious, who wasn’t threatening people online. We’ve got nothing against tickling. But our story is about power and manipulation and control.”
Scarily, the harassment depicted in Tickled may still be a live issue. “The website and the Facebook page are still active, so I can only assume it is still happening. The hope is that people will see the film and think twice before they take part in competitive endurance tickling shoots. There are a lot of things going on in the world of the film that was very questionable. Hopefully shining a light will force some changes to happen.” Tickled opens next week
There were legal threats from different lawyers. And then there was just a wall of emails coming in all the time. That’s when we decided there’s more to this
David Farrier “We decided early on that we didn’t want to demonise the fetish”