Film Review: “Tickled” — It’s Funny Until it Happens to You

I can’t quite believe I’m cautioning viewers about the troubling nature of a documentary about tickling.

Tickled, directed by David Farrier, Dylan Reeve. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA

Participants in a tickling video from the documentary "Tickled."

Participants in a tickling video from the documentary “Tickled.”

By Peg Aloi

It’s been a rollicking, fascinating ride through the realm of documentary film these last few years. Hard to say which groundbreaking films set the tone, but docs have become more cleverly confrontational and more artful. No topic is off limits: racism, murder, sexual assault, politics, and increasingly, unusual subcultures. Tickled seems at first to be cheekily exploring an odd subculture too: that of the sport of Competitive Endurance Tickling. But this film ends up being an investigation into an ugly empire overseen by one vindictive individual.

David Farrier, a pop culture TV reporter living in Auckland, New Zealand, sees a Youtube video about this quirky sport. The group has a Facebook page and it seems to be a legitimate, if strange, sporting league. The media rep sends him a strange response, indicating that her company would not welcome a “homosexual journalist” doing a story; her email includes homophobic language. Farrier is surprised but, of course, now determined to dig deeper. The web company, owned by Jane O’Brien Media, is ostensibly based in the USA, but its online domains are based in Germany. Farrier and cameraman Dylan Reeve blog and report on the subject, and start making a documentary. They’re summarily served with a cease and desist order from O’Brien; three representatives fly from the US to NZ to discuss things. Farrier meets the three men at the airport with cameras rolling and their response is defensive. He tells them he receives daily email threats. They counter by saying he has brought it on himself.

A young American football player, who has attained some moderate success, talks to Farrier, confessing that he decided to make some competitive tickling videos because he needed the money. The videos are strangely stylish: pale blue walls, the well-built young tattooed ticklers (athletes and actors), the intimate poses.  It’s all strangely homoerotic and, as the young athlete points out, a lot like torture. He explains  the company said it wanted to explore the use of tickling as a torture tactic by the military; the athlete was dubious, but he’d been hired and continued working with them until he decided to stop cold. He later found the videos were all over Youtube, and also received threatening messages from the company. It sounds a lot like blackmail.

The filmmakers also interview a tickling fetishist who makes and collects ticking videos. He started a video-driven website for fellow fetishists that quickly became a full-time job. Interestingly, tickling fetishists seem more likely to be the ticklers rather than the ticklees. Farrier attends a live recording session and looks on with befuddlement and a bit of pity. I found these scenes fairly disturbing because, despite the laughter, this really does seem like torture, at least to me. And I imagine most viewers will have visceral responses driven by their own personal feelings about being tickled against their will.

Farrier then interviews David Starr, a tickling video casting director, who had worked for a producer/dominatrix named “Terri Tickle” in the 1990s. This segment explores someone who engages in similar, but even uglier, blackmailing techniques. These videos are more amateurish, shot in peoples’ houses and with amateur performers. Starr created a number of videos over his five year stint with Terri. He parted ways with her after she violated the talent release agreements and posted videos online; she then contacted the talent with threatening emails along the lines of “what do you think your mother will think when she sees this?” Starr calls himself Terri’s “tickling drug dealer” and says she started calling and leaving obscene messages for him and the talent. She also sent voice-disguised robotic messages implicating Starr as the one violating the talent’s privacy. She even sent numerous weekly letters to Starr’s mother.

Once Terri’s true identity is revealed, the enormous economic scope of this industry is made clear, as well as the horrifying behavior predicated on targeting vulnerable young men, many of them minors. Farrier is resourceful and relentless with his investigation, despite being personally threatened. The level of suspense generated by the build towards the film’s final revelations is bound to stir up many emotions, some of them disturbing. I can’t quite believe I’m cautioning viewers about the troubling nature of a documentary about tickling. But the dark and twisted labyrinth at the heart of this story is thoroughly unexpected, and ultimately terrifying.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour.

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