The events chronicled in the new documentary Tickled begin ordinarily enough. David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist whose beat is covering “the weird and bizarre side of life,” wrote an article about a video he found online that featured “competitive endurance tickling,” promoted by Jane O’Brien Media, of Los Angeles.
In the video, a clean-cut, good-looking young man, wearing athletic clothing, is tied down at the wrists and ankles, while three other similarly attired young men tickle him. The tickled dude laughs and writhes and moans as expected; the ticklers say nothing. It’s behavior both relatively benign and kinda creepy.
Farrier’s story and subsequent blog posts net him aggressive emails threatening legal actions, and homophobic slurs as well. His interest piqued, Farrier and his tech-savvy pal, Dylan Reeve, head off to the U.S., cameras in tow, to sort out the extent of tickling groups, how they are run and why such an odd, but consensual and legal activity would spur such an angry response.
I’ll stop myself here, because this is where the story gets weird, and viewers should just come to it cold. The deeper Farrier and Reeve dig into the story — unearthing former participants, sorting through false identities, plumbing the depths of the long-ago Internet — the more jaw-dropping the big picture becomes. In the end, it turns out to be less a tale about tickling, or even consensual fetish play, than a crazy web of “power, control and harassment.”
There are some important issues that come into play here: how modern technologies like the Internet can be a supple, slippery force for evil, such as cyber-bullying, as well as a convenient place to hide; how abusers prey on the vulnerable; and even how the concept of a free press in a democratic society can be undermined by just a few committed and well-financed people.
Farrier and Reeves’ film itself is a bit shaggy, uneven and even amateurish in places, due in part to the directors’ lack of experience and also the low-budget stealth approach the pair often took. But the intriguing subject matter should carry viewers over the rough spots.
Starts Fri., July 8. Harris Theater.