When I first heard of Tickled, the much hyped new documentary by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, I was cautiously suspicious, as it seemed to rely too heavily on an aesthetics of deviance. I’m usually wary of deviant subject matter in documentaries, which often seems to fall back on the argument (or lack thereof) that the mere strangeness, uniqueness, or idiosyncrasies of their subject matter should speak for itself — rather than to actually establish a cinematic narrative discourse. Documentary is one of my favorite genres because it’s a perfect format to push the boundaries of narrative cinema, and the days when it served as a mere vehicle for a freak sideshow attraction should be over. That being said, my first impressions about Tickled proved unfounded, and it has now become one of my favorite documentaries of the year.
Right off the bat Farrier states that he’s “made a career out of looking at the bizarre and weird side of life.” When he stumbles upon a series of videos and websites dedicated to something called Competitive Endurance Tickling he decides he wants to further pursue this sporting subculture. These are very odd videos, to put it mildly, where young men tickle each other, sometimes with the subject strapped down or tied, other times pinned by several other young men. No actual competition seems to transpire to qualify this as a sport. Moreover, no nudity, sex or explicitly erotic acts happen in such videos, just athletic young men nervously laughing from being forcefully tickled by other young men.
But Tickled is not really about this peculiar subculture or the deviance of its participants. When Farrier attempts to contact the website behind these videos — a shadowy company going by the name of Jane O’ Brien Media — the responses come in forms of extreme overreactions, homophobic slurs, and threats warning Farrier to stop pursuing the story at once. After further digging, he discovers the web domain for Jane O’Brien media is registered to a German company called Nederdietsen, which owned 300 website domains, all related to tickling videos.
From then on the film plays like a fast-paced, gripping, tense thriller, with Farrier leading us increasingly deeper into a bizarre underworld where young men (often poor and from decaying industrial towns) are recruited by mysteriously shady characters to participate in ticking videos. Jane O’ Brien Media seems to be an extremely wealthy company, paying circa $1000 to each participant, plus accommodations and plane tickets to LA, in addition to employing people to hire more men all over the US to take part in such videos. Where on earth does all this money come from, who could be behind this enterprise that not only produces these extremely niche videos, but that also sues, harasses, and bullies participants and anyone attempting to investigate this subculture?
Tickled also provides us with methodologically interesting dilemma given that the main subject matter constantly refuses contact with the directors. The person or persons behind Jane O’ Brien Media did not only refuse to be interviewed on camera, but also constantly set up lawsuits against the directors. Most of the young men participating in the videos, according to the narration, were all too terrified to talk (though that does seem a stretch a times, since we have no audio of any competitor actually being terrified). This leaves the directors with the task of approaching the subject through its fringes, and turning the lack of cooperation by Jane O’ Brien Media into the film’s main driving force.
I’d rather not spoil too much of the storyline, since Tickled’s greatest triumph lies in its tense rhythm, which keeps viewers glued to the screen as more disturbing facts are gradually revealed. Suffice to say, Farrier may have taken a bizarre internet fad as his starting point, but he’s ultimately made a documentary about how money, power, and narcissism can build an off-the-radar internet empire grounded in harassment, threats, and bullying to serve the whims of a single person. One minor issue I do have with Tickled is that it tends to over exaggerate the tension during its third act, relying too heavily on forced suspense and sensationalist eerie music. Thankfully, these moments are rare and do not detract from what is otherwise an absorbing and gripping experience in a film that tackles important contemporary issues concerning anonymity, the internet, accountability, and online persecution.