“Tickled” is a superbly crafted documentary! It is framed more as a thriller, what with an ominous score by Rodi Kirkcaldy & Florian Zwietnig setting the mood for things to come. The editing subverts expectations just as the subject matter does: tricking the audience into thinking they’re watching an innocuous documentary on competitive tickling competitions when instead they’re greeted to a bizarre exposé on power and manipulation. Whereas most documentaries are content with the talking head narrative and/or a bland, direct approach, the documentarians behind “Tickled” are more concerned with engaging the audience via clever filming techniques. For that, the film succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.
The documentarians are David Farrier & Dylan Reeve, the former a New Zealand journalist and the latter his tech wizard friend. David covers lighter fare, his focus being on the weird underbelly of society. When he stumbles upon a tickling video, in which a participant is strapped to a bed and continually tickled, he knows he struck a goldmine. He contacts the owner of Jane O’Brien Media, the distributor of the video, in hopes of snagging an interview to shed light on this strange but seemingly innocent fetish. What he receives in return is an astoundingly hateful message filled with homophobia and threats of both the legal and physical variety. The journalist’s sense of humor rises to the surface in this sequence, stating he’s not offended by the homophobic remarks considering the rather homoerotic nature of the videos. He is, however, entranced by the company and is dead set on uncovering the machinations of it.
What follows is an hour and a half of the most gripping and astonishing revelations detailed in a documentary in some time! Sure, there are more shocking documentaries out there, but their focus is on a subject matter that is shocking to begin with. “Tickled” covers seemingly lighter material, only to uncover a terrifying power struggle that could turn into a murder documentary at any moment. It is easy to make light of the threats made by the mysterious proprietor of the tickling competition considering his/her proclivities, but testimonies from former participants paint another story. One that is horrifying and life-threatening, including but not limited to: slander, harassment, blackmail, manipulation, and legal & physical threats. For the participants, whose stories start out with a tinge of comedy only to segue into fear, it is a harrowing excursion.
David Farrier is at the forefront of the film, a slippery slope for any documentary. Even the most engaging of personalities, such as Morgan Spurlock, can make their presence detrimental to the topic at hand. For instance, Spurlock’s presence was far too intrusive in “Mansome,” distracting the audience from the history of male grooming instead of bolstering it. His presence in “Super Size Me” was justifiable considering he was the guinea pig in the McDonald’s experiment. “Tickled” follows the “Super Size Me” approach, with Farrier’s presence being justified by the threats lodged against him. Had the owner of the site not concocted a war with the journalist, chances are David would’ve kept his screen time to a minimum. As it stands, he is required to be front and center given the attack is lodged against him. It becomes a documentary more about power and manipulation than tickling competitions, with Farrier’s travails being the catalyst for it.
To David’s credit, he downplays his sensibilities, keeping his focus on the perpetrator and the victims. His sense of humor only comes into play when the moment calls for it, such as the aforementioned response to the rampant homophobia and his interviews with the tickling competitors. The latter is to put the interviewees at ease, reassuring them that their trials and tribulations won’t be relegated to ridicule. Not once are the participants made fools out of or judged for their involvement in the arguably peculiar sport of competitive tickling. It is clear that Farrier’s original intent was to shed light on the fetish in a playful manner that would hopefully warm society to it, only to change his sights on uncovering the shady practices of the business as it permits.
I have seen some criticisms lodged against the documentary, stating that it purposely heightens the drama by making the fetish out to be more diabolical than it is. The tickling competitions are related to acts of BDSM, at one point even being referred to as tickle torture. To be fair, that is exactly what the practice is: tickling one against their control to get a rise out of them and the viewer. Whether that stimulation is sexual or not is up to the individual. While I can see how this labeling could be perceived as negative, I found it to be more descriptive than anything else. As I stated earlier, Farrier’s original intent is to shed light on the fetish, not make light of it (as the podcasters did in the introduction of the film). The labeling is an attempt at honesty, not disparagement. As for the shame of some of the participants, one has to take into consideration their conservative upbringing. To them and their family, something as tame as tickling competitions would be seen as abominable. That does not mean the filmmakers view it as such or feel as if the audience must.
Admittedly, there are editing techniques that make the tickling fetish out to be more diabolical than it actually is. There are numerous occasions in which the laughter of the participants is converted into that of demonic hysteria; an unsettling concoction of giggling that presents the act as fiendish. Considering the aftermath of the competitions and the nefarious practices of the investor(s), the audio manipulation is tenable considering it highlights the fear and paranoia of the victims.
The only argument I feel has significant weight to it would be in how that audio manipulation is utilized later on in a separate interview. At one point, David contacts a tickle fetish enthusiast who also runs his own website targeted towards fellow enthusiasts. He too films “tickle torture” videos, explaining their significance and detailing the filming practices. The demonic laughter is once again utilized, this time accompanied by cinematography (credited to Dominic Fryer) that posits the torture as barbaric. This isn’t in line with the intent, which is to showcase how the tickling fetish can be guileless in the right hands. I will come to its defense, however, citing that, by the time this scene arrives, Farrier & Reeve have been entrenched in the seediness of the act that it’s hard for them to separate the innocence from the cruelty. The editing and cinematography is meant to complement that vision. Sure, it’s manipulative, but what documentary isn’t?
Farrier & Reeve aimed to produce a documentary that uncovered the troubling practices of one Jane O’Brien Media, succeeding in that and more so. They denude the company all the while dissecting the tickling infatuation with sincerity (give or take a few differing perspectives). By framing it as a voyeuristic thriller, the proceedings move by at a rapid pace, never once losing interest. The techniques are complementary to the subject matter at hand, fortifying the investigation. A simple talking head narrative would’ve sufficed, as the topic is beguiling enough to elicit engagement. Meticulously orchestrating a cinematic narrative proved to be much more fruitful, aiding “Tickled” in rising above the comfort zone of most documentaries and joining the ranks of giants!
Final Rating: A