It’s unlikely you’re going to come across too many documentaries this year with a yarn to spin as tangled and twisted as Tickled. Following the investigations of New Zealand pop culture journalist David Farrier, it is essentially an expose of a particular media company who specialise in online videos of Competitive Endurance Tickling (CET). And yes, that is as weird as it sounds. From stumbling upon a bizarre video of the ‘sport’ in action, Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve quickly find themselves prodding at the dark underbelly of a seedy practice, uncovering unnerving power games and trying to unravel an elusive mystery.
The path is one that just gets continually stranger from the moment Farrier chances upon his first video, through email harassment and homophobia from the employees of Jane O’Brien Media, to threats, law suits, and young men too scared to talk about their experiences. The film seems to adopt the same tonal quality as the tickle videos themselves; initially funny, as the athletic young men burst into laughter as they lie restrained and helpless, but almost immediately morphing into something far more awkward and ominous. For the first few minutes, CET seems like harmless, if odd, fun. It is too shown to be something far more insidious. As Farrier picks up the threads of the undeniably fascinating narrative, Reeve accompanies with camera in hand. This footage inter-cuts with talking heads and clips from the videos themselves, but remains largely flavourless as it sticks close to Farrier and rarely attempts to flex its visual muscles.
What matters is documenting their story – threats aimed at Reeve’s young family make that a necessity – but this vice-like grip on the specifics of the case do little to help the film breath. Strong documentaries transform the local into the universal, great ones do that whilst turning a niche, laughable subject into something with pathos. Tickled never really manages to do either of these things. As it progresses various themes emerge, ranging from the corrosive power of idle wealth, to the kinky aspects of physical domination, to the internet’s role in both facilitating the tickle videos and in allowing Farrier to investigate them. Instead, Tickled motions towards these discussions, whilst abandoning them in favour of the next lead.
Even with the young men who will talk – or to Richard Ivey whose own tickle video website is positively salubrious by comparison. As the case reaches its climax, Farrier and Reeve never seem to find the hook that would elevate an incredibly specific story into something more affecting. The result is a conventional and functional expose that would perhaps have been more at home on television than in cinemas, but nonetheless manages to tell a riveting and almost unbelievable story.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson