How many times have you played this game with your siblings?
How many times have you thought about it as an innocent amusement when it could turn into an almighty tool of blackmail?
That’s what New-Zealand TV and radio reporter David Farrier discovered after watching a strange YouTube video of competitive endurance tickling. After thorough research, he resolved to make a documentary about it with his friend and colleague Dylan Reeve. Then came the controversial Tickled.
Farrier always made a living out of the weirdest stories, but what is for sure is that he didn’t see this one coming. Behind those tickling contests lied Jane O’Brien Media, a company recruiting young male athletes willing to get tied up and tickled for money. After asking the mysterious Jane for an interview, the only answer Farrier got was multiple insults and homophobic allusions. Despite many legal threats, Farrier decided to do what any credible investigative journalist would do: dig a little further.
“I think by the time Jane O’Brien Media decided to send three men all the way from New York to New Zealand to tell me there was no story… I knew there was a story. My co-director Dylan knew there was a story. That, combined with the early legal threats, just made us so curious about what was going on,” David Farrier said in an email interview. “Added to this, we saw evidence of sustained online bullying that had been happening for quite some time. There was an injustice we wanted to see brought into the light. That kept us going.”
Only one in over 100 young men contacted by Farrier agreed to talk on camera, immediately describing the process as a torture project assimilated with military tactics. Turns out anonymous Jane was sharing and uploading videos of the tickling sessions online without consent. A disturbing way of looking at sexuality slowly develops into what clearly appears as an anti-sport. The sectarian group insists on distancing itself from the gay community, Jane’s hatred of homosexuals is becoming more and more obvious and yet the videos are precisely about physical contact between men and men only.
Richard Ivey, a tickling fetishist interviewed by Farrier and Reeve, gladly welcomes the journalists into his personal tickling studio in Florida, where the practice is seen as an erotic thing. Then comes Terry Desisto, a tickling fanatic who influenced many people in the “business”, including Richard Ivey. The journalist duo quickly gets to the root of the matter by researching and talking to other reporters who have been looking into Terry’s case.
“It was almost like she (Terry) was completely intoxicated with this power that she had to be so destructive against people.”
Debbie Scoblionkov, journalist.
The tension is gradually rising but the documentary’s ability to carry on with a light and humorous tone is part of its strength. Witnessing the evolution of the investigation is quite impressive when taking into consideration the difficulty of finding relevant sources willing to be exposed. Any good journalist knows how crucial sources are: Farrier and Reeve are no exception to the rule. Former participants TJ and Alden, former casting agent David Starr, journalists Hal Karp and Debbie Scoblionkov, and former tickle recruiter in Michigan Jordon Schillaci are among those making the story possible.
“It was difficult to get people to talk on camera, because many of them were scared of the repercussions. We had lots of sources and testimony though… they just didn’t want it to be public. The main obstacle was piecing a fairly complex story with lots of players together in a way that would make sense!”
In total, it took under two years for the journalists to gather everything and finish the film, but that is mainly because the story escalated so quickly according to Farrier, who admits he’s still stressed about the whole thing. “As the production grew, we got more and more support. That came in the form of Kickstarter backers, (…) of Stephen Fry, (…) of lawyers who helped give advice pro bono. So many people supported this project as time went on… and that was hugely important when coming up against this company with deep, deep pockets.”
Tickled is a must-see documentary on the art of investigative journalism and the disclosure of a worldwide hoax based on power and control. Ironically delicious, Tickled is a wake-up call for anyone defining journalism as socially irrelevant, by smartly unfolding the behind-the-scenes of an influential subculture whose unhealthy influence goes way beyond knowledge and local news. Many lives have been destroyed by the threats and psychological torture put in place by only one disturbed person, David D’Amato.
The journalists have been sued for defamation over the making of this film, but Farrier stood his ground. “We were making a film about a company that didn’t want to appear on camera. So we knew what to expect. We still answered the questions that I believe needed answering, to bring this whole thing into the light. I am really proud of what I’ve made with my friends.”
The limit remains thin between documentary filmmaking and journalism as explored by the 2015 Sundance Film Festival hosting Citizenfour and Virunga. Even though the film is dividing, it remains clear after watching the movie that what has been driving Farrier and Reeve all along was nothing else than the pursuit of truth.
After a noteworthy debut at the Sundance Film Festival and an appearance at the True/False Film Festival this year, David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s Tickled will be released as of Friday 24th of June at the Cinema du Parc in Montreal.