Top of the Docs #19 – ‘Tickled’ (2016)

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. This month’s theme is “Stranger Than Fiction”.

“It’s not what you think.”

Never has a tagline been so apt. Tickled really isn’t what you think.

Welcome to the weird world of “competitive endurance tickling”. The so-called activity or sport has been around for decades, almost as long as the internet began, and sees various athletic men strapped down and tickled by other men for entertainment. Whether it be one man straddling another, or a group teasing their victim through fits of carefully constructed giggles, this video craze seems entirely harmless on the surface, as it delights fans through their unified love of laughter. However, this slightly homoerotic pastime heralds a dark secret, one that suggests that sometimes, laughter isn’t always the best medicine.

Tickled is fronted by David Farrier, a New Zealand journalist who is known for pursuing stories of the odd variety. Most recently, he presented the 2018 Netflix series Dark Tourist, which looks at some of the most obscure, peculiar and dangerous tourist spots worldwide . This includes a tour of the locations of in which Jeffrey Dahmer killed his victims in Milwaukee; partaking in a mock illegal border crossing into the US in Northern Mexico; and an apprehensive visit to Tomioka in Japan, a town ravaged with radiation as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, in Farrier’s pursuit of the bizarre, it’s Tickled that proves to be a real standout.

Journalist David Farrier holds up a multi-coloured sign to welcome Marko Realmonte and Jane O'Brien Media to New Zealand.
Image courtesy of HBO

The initial intention for the investigation is incredibly innocent. Farrier is sent a video on competitive endurance tickling, a weird emerging sport that is completely within his obscure journalistic wheelhouse. So, for kicks, Farrier decides to investigate the sport for little bit of light entertainment. However, Farrier is met with nothing but a barrage of hate from the video’s producer, who specifically notes that they would refuse to work with a homosexual journalist. Farrier, who identifies as bisexual and has publicly dated men before, thinks this itself is rather odd as he notes that the sport is, well, “a bit gay.” He feels he had no choice but to investigate the sport further, but what he finds is a world bullied into silence, and a dark menace shaming people into feeding their tickling addiction.

Farrier’s journalistic curiosity and constant pursuit for justice is what really sets this documentary apart. Even when faced with inter-continental lawsuits, Farrier doesn’t seem perturbed. He humours his accusers with colourful banners during their airport arrivals, untimely visits to their shooting locations, and other two-toned attempts to dig deep into what is really happening within the world of endurance tickling. Farrier’s need for answers only grows with each obstacle, and his passion to give justice to the victims of Jane O’Brien Media, Terry Tickle, and beyond, is admirable. He believes in what he is doing and refuses to be scared into submission like so many others. It is a real showcase of journalism at its finest, proving Farrier to be one of the very best.

Tickled make its debut at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to rave reviews and critical acclaim: a result that is altogether unsurprising. It is one of the few documentaries that thoroughly explores every nook and cranny in its pursuit of the truth, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Ultimately, Tickled is one wild ride. It is a story that you really have to see to believe, and if you are able to see it, I highly suggest that you do.

Header image courtesy of HBO