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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

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”

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