Tickled  – The Gloomy Story Beneath the Superficial Ha-Ha’s
New Zealand journalist David Farrier wades through strange corners of YouTube & social media to report on oddly funny activities of the pop culture. He is supposed to hunt for something entertaining as well as weird enough to hold viewers attention for a minute and a half. When David came across a video titled ‘Competitive Endurance Ticking’ he thought that he’s got his absurdly funny story. At that point, Mr. David wouldn’t have known that he is going to make a 90 minute documentary feature Tickled (2016) on the same subject. The Facebook page advertisement for an ‘tickling’ competition offered all-expenses-paid trip to Los Angeles and some substantial amount to participate. The single condition is to allowed to be videotaped by a company called ‘Jane O’ Brien Media’. In the videos, group of young, athletic men in sportswear hold down another young man who is chained & bound to a mattress. The strapped guy is tickled, while he uncontrollably laughs, swears, and yelps. The competition seems to be in the ‘light-hearted entertainment’ category usually pursued by David Farrier. But, when he expressed his desire to do a story on this bizarre competition, he received back one nasty reply from Jane O’ Brien media – threatening him with lawsuits – which actually provoked him to dig lot deeper to reach into the bowels of tickling fetishism empire.
‘Tickiling Fetishism Empire’? Yes. You have heard it right. A bulky, grown man looks tense before getting strapped onto a chair. In the next half-hour, he giggles, wheezes, and clenches his teeth as a tickling fetishist asserts dominance without inciting any form of physical pain. There lies the inherent irony of this strange fetishism: an innocent child’s play used by adults to form an unsettling subculture; a feather and soft fingertips used as instrument to inflict a form of erotic torture. Although this fetishism looks very bizarre, it is not illegal or punishable by law. Richard Ivey from Orlando has in fact built a fetishism empire, telling his models what are his intentions in making these videos. Th well-spoken guy says that the ‘tickling torture’ is softer version of whips & cuffs used in fetish porn. His site is advertised as ‘gay foot fetish heaven’ and calls this weird habit as ‘just another form of control’. The story of Jane O’ Brien Media is much more strange and darker. Despite the homo-erotic nature of this so-called competitive sport, David Farrier, an openly gay journalist, receives a hostile e-mail from a Debbie Kuhn, attacking his homosexuality.
The insulting tone piqued Farrier’s interest on the company. Few days later and with more e-mail exchanges, Farrier was threatened with lawsuits and was warned to not dig deeper. Farrier partnered with his computer-savvy colleague Dylan Reeve deciding to figure out what it’s all about. To find out the reason for these extreme threats and insults. Reeve and Farrier’s further investigation brought three representatives from US (flown in business class to New Zealand) to insist that everything is legit and to stop following the company’s tracks. The company representative’s dominant stature and manner of speaking only made the journalist duo think ‘there’s got to be more to this’. And, they decided to fly to US in order to explore the roots of this strange company. Farrier, Reeve, and their cinematographer Dom Fryer discovered things that could be dubbed as ‘stranger than fiction’. They journeyed through the darkest corners of cyber-bullying before exposing a dangerous sociopath.
Jane O’ Brien media lures young, athletic men to Los Angeles, promising $1500 and four night stay at a fancy hotel. The young men, although feels discomfort, doesn’t feel that it is harmful to be videotaped while bounded and tickled. They got their tuition fees to take care and these men are promised that the videos are only for private collection. But, when few young men were alarmed and started to speak out about the abuse, Jane O- Brien media adopted a vicious online campaign. The company posted the ‘tickling’ videos in all public domains, formed website on the men’s name, divulging all their personal details. The football coach, principal of the school, and even family members of selected men got the ‘tickling’ videos, ruining their sports career as well as their education. It’s just a sample for the company’s bullying tactics. There are much more shocking and exceptional revelations in Farrier’s journey that’s better watched than said.
The directors don’t get lost by scoffing at those with fetishism. In fact, the extended sequence involving Richard Ivey is filmed in a way that’s lighthearted compared to the unbridled harassment used by ‘Jane O’ Brien’. The strength of Tickled is Farrier’s investigative chops and Reeve’s willingness to finish this whole journey without succumbing to legal threats. The sequences, where Farrier ambushes the wary representatives of the company using a video camera and a camera hidden in a teacup were brilliant. The sinistral empire the director duo has discovered goes deeper than showcasing the superficial giggles of tickling videos. They have exposed an alleged robust network of power and money, designed to prey on the economically weak. If the joy in watching this documentary is related to the expose or numerous twists in the narrative, the flaw I consider is the lack of profundity in studying the darkest corners of web culture. It’s an investigative piece that’s immensely entertaining & engaging until the twists are revealed. Once everything is revealed, we can’t dive into it again, hoping for some profound lessons.
Since the film-makers were engaged in bringing out the monstrosity of a sociopath, they weren’t able to analyze the whole shadowy history of cyberspace. There’s too much of biographical details on the person behind these harassment and there’s also a superficial approach to find out what made this person to do these nasty things. What I felt the documentary could have addressed more deeply is the dangerous anonymity the web has offered to such sick individuals rather than simply going through the perpetrator’s personal details. ‘I’m being violated on so many different levels right now’, says a participant of the video made by Jane O’ Brien media. Although the participant tells about his own, painful experience, the statement could also be related with internet’s transgressive qualities to throw dirt at any anonymous person. While Tickled (91 minutes) tells a very important & intriguing story about a virtual harasser, I’d also hope to watch a documentary in the near-future that lays out those mechanisms which gives these dangerous people, the coveted anonymity.