Good fortune can have a funny way of shining on a documentary in progress. The guiding hand of fate can sometimes leave its mark on a project, providing an unexpected shift in focus that leaves you looking at something resembling a happy accident.
A couple of years ago, tour documentary As the Palaces Burn followed in the footsteps of genre classic Gimme Shelter, as its intended narrative (ostensibly a straight tour rockumentary) gave way to a tragedy – morphing into something larger, more complex and arguably much more intriguing that what was originally intended. Recent efforts like Catfish and Capturing the Friedmans saw the filmmakers forced to change tack partway through the projects, reacting to happenstance and evolving the film as a consequence of the unfolding events. It’s not uncommon for the finished product to bear little resemblance to the movie you began making, or at least the one you began watching.
David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled continues this trend, beginning as a playful jaunt into the world of endurance tickling and ending as a disquieting look at exploitation and coercion. Farrier, a journalist based in New Zealand, chances across a video online that shows a handful of people (exclusively male) partaking in what is referred to as “endurance tickling”, in which participants are restrained and tickled. With a background in light popular culture and niche entertainment, Farrier reasons that this is perfect material for an interview and contacts the company that produced the video. Confusingly, Farrier’s request is met with hostility – much of it explicitly homophobic – and before he knows it, he’s face-to-face with a trio of lawyers angrily warning him off the scent. Farrier, along with cameraman and co-director Reeve, react by travelling to the USA to scrutinise the company in question and investigate the history of online endurance tickling videos.
For Farrier and Reeve, what began as a piece of fluff quickly morphs into something far more intimidating. In broad terms, Tickled bears some similarity to Louis Theroux’s My Scientology Movie. That movie isn’t really a documentary about the Church of Scientology – it’s a documentary about not being able to make a documentary about the Church of Scientology. Likewise, Tickled is not really a movie about endurance tickling, tickling fetishism or even tickling in general. It’s a movie about being undermined in the pursuit of a story and the bullying, despotic tactics of the men who would seek to obstruct journalists from uncovering the truth.
It’s tricky to discuss at length without giving away some of the particulars that make Tickled such an engrossing watch. In the course of their investigation, Farrier and Reeve kick over a stone and find a rotten nest of undesirables scuttling underneath. The infrastructure of the endurance tickling businesses, if it can be called a business, is plainly a squalid one. Its focus alternates between the victims of intimidation and blackmail that run rife in the world, and the shadowy personas behind what turns out to be a genuinely unpleasant set up.
Farrier presents with a deadpan style that lends itself well to what is often a farcical and bleak subject matter, cutting through some of the more bizarre or grim developments with a sardonic sense of humour. A sense of futility seems to hang over the project at the finale, leaving you with something of an empty, unhappy feeling, but Tickled is still a fine example of the kind of serendipitous mess in which documentary-makers find themselves as their films take on lives of their own.
Dir: David Farrier & Dylan Reeve
Prd: Carthew Neal
Country: New Zealand
Runtime: 92 mins
Tickled is now available on digital download and available on DVD/VOD from