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Film review: Tickled – it’s not what you think

Film & TV

My first response to the documentary ‘Tickled’? This can’t be serious.

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New Zealand pop culture reporter David Farrier was no stranger to the weird and wonderful when he first became aware of the world of competitive tickling. What he initially thought might make an interesting story took him deep into a mystery involving large sums of money, legal threats and allegations of internet bullying.

His resulting film diary is so bizarre it almost feels like it might be a mockumentary.

Farrier’s interest was piqued when he saw an online video of young men taking part in “competitive endurance tickling”.

He contacted the source of the footage for an interview, but instead received a series of increasingly strident and insulting email responses seemingly aimed at stopping Farrier and fellow director Dylan Reeve from pursuing their story idea any further.

Some sleuthing revealed more and so the strange sport was deemed worthy of a blog post. The post got lots of attention, and the fallout from this and the team’s attempts to discover the truth makes for unsettling viewing.

The documentary is intriguing right from the opening scenes and very quickly ratchets the creepy factor up to 11. When three representatives fly over from the US to try to convince Farrier and Reeve to drop their plans for the doco, hidden cameras record conversations that only reinforce the filmmakers’ suspicions that the business of tickling has something to hide. They head to the States to investigate further.

The “competitions”, they discover, involve athletes being paid to administer and endure extended sessions of tickling while being filmed. Participants report being approached in the gym and invited to join in, enticed with payments of several thousand dollars; flights and accommodation are included for those who don’t live locally.

One interviewee describes how he felt unsure about what was “going down”, but went ahead anyway as his family needed the money for medical bills.

The two directors and their crew calmly pursue their targets in an attempt to find out more about the enterprise.

In case you didn’t realise, tickling is most definitely “a thing”. They track down another tickle entrepreneur who made so much money with his foot fetish website he was able to retire from his ordinary day job and live off the income from his year-old business.

One video maker shared his own stories of filming similar “content”. When he stopped producing footage for the woman who commissioned it, he alleges he was subjected to a barrage of threatening letters, emails and phone calls, directed not just at him but also his family.

It’s impossible to reveal much about this film without ruining the viewing experience for potential audiences. Let’s just say it’s got it all: denial of service attacks, Secret Service visits to dorm rooms, “smoking gun” zip files – the revelations keep on coming and no one can believe what they’ve uncovered.

The scale of their target’s operation is far-reaching, and reputed to stretch beyond US shores to countries as far afield as Australia and Italy. In the words of one “talent” recruiter, “the money is endless”.

For their first feature film, Farrier and Reeve certainly got lucky with a story that has more than its share of twists and turns. Tickled is a sad and disturbing portrait of obsession, deception and identity. The film’s subtitle, “It’s not what you think”, couldn’t be more apt.

Tickled is showing at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas in Adelaide.

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