Without question, the best investigative documentaries seek to uncover truths and shed light on an underbelly of society usually hidden or misunderstood by the rest of the world. Here is such a documentary, which offers up multiple hidden layers of one of the most sinister kinds of conspiracies imaginable as well as a grave miscarriage of justice thanks to money and connections. And it all came from the seemingly innocent act of tickling.
Tickled begins when New Zealand journalist David Farrier, known for his amusing pieces on the quirkier side of life, finds a video online in which three young men are straddling another young man and continuously tickling him in an act known as “competitive endurance tickling.” Believing he has found his next story, Farrier contacts the video’s owner, Jane O’Brien Media, for an interview. When a representative for the site responds back telling him to stay away, Farrier recruits documentarian Dylan Reeve as he begins to dig a little deeper, uncovering an endless string of lies, corruption, and exploitation.
The idea of tickling being the subject of the a dark and probing documentary might seem laughable to most until the filmmakers unearth the many aspects of abuse and exploitation at the heart of it. Among the various shocking aspects uncovered are how the young men filmed while being tickled were sold on the idea by believing they were taking part in a “culture project” to be used by the military and were given large amounts of money to participate. While the documentary points to the fact that there are “tickle cells” existing throughout North America, not all are portrayed in the same way, as seen when Farrier and Reeve visit a fetishist and one of his willing tickling subjects who shows what he does as a legitimate business. Still, so much of Tickled remains so unbelievably compelling thanks to the sinister nature of the subject at hand. The most intense of these moments comes from the stealth filming of a tickling session which proves more than disturbing in its own creepy way.
While the idea of chipping away at the macho image by having muscular men squeal with laughter is humorous, it’s the after-effects which ultimately prove the most disturbing. Though it wasn’t necessarily the intention, Tickled eventually becomes a film about victims trapped in the clutches of rich bullies with an endless string of money and power. After it is suspected that Jane O’Brien Media is a front, the film takes a look at 21st century bogeymen: virtual captors who are always holding their victims hostage by manipulating their reputations in society. When one tickling subject tries to get a video of him being tickled removed from the internet, the poster publicly labels him as being a “sexually deviant” and proceeds to display personal information online while telling his employers that the individual in question is a child molester. Every revelation is more shocking than the last and brings forth another piece of an already-outrageous puzzle. Eventually what starts out as a fun, quirky piece becomes a tale of money and power in which there are no winners.
The most interesting thing about Tickled is the decision on the part of its makers to film it like a Hollywood thriller complete with a number of creative, cinematic angles and intense music. The style fits purely because this is such a larger than life story that is so hard to believe, yet is all entirely true. The end of the film is certainly bittersweet since despite the exposure, “competitive tickling” is still being done in the aforementioned tickle cells. However, by the time Tickled nears its end, it becomes impossible not to applaud the dedication, tenacity, and relentlessness of the filmmakers/journalists who wonderfully embody the bravery and fearlessness required to take on this kind of story and never cease in the effort to bring it to light.