Tickled is a documentary that shouldn’t exist. From the subjects that are constantly threatening lawsuits to the potential interviewees that are too scared to participate, the fact that the documentary was finished at all is a miracle. However, if people are trying this hard to cover a story up, it’s probably a pretty compelling story to tell.
The movie opens on David Farrier, a New Zealand entertainment journalist. Archival footage of him interviewing celebrities and other strange characters underscores an introductory sequence where he describes how he found his next story: a seemingly pornographic video featuring several men demonstrating ‘competitive endurance tickling’. He reaches out to the Facebook page the video was posted on, and is met with an aggressively hostile message featuring numerous gay slurs. Undeterred and accompanied by his videographer/co-director Dylan Reeve, the quest to understand the purpose of the videos, and the vindictiveness of the owner, continues while the wormhole gets deeper and more and more questions appear.
This story is too insane to be true and too weird to be fake. There are layers upon layers as more and more questions arise. The film shifts from a cutesy entertainment piece to a serious look into power dynamics and control. It would be one thing if this documentary was just a small look into an interesting subculture, but this is part exploration, part crime investigation. Because of this, there is a nice structure that keeps the pace moving. It starts with an introduction of the world, followed by how the world functions and the impacts on the participants and then concludes with a character study on the person behind it all. Because of this, the documentary has a drive and a purpose.
There’s also no doubt that the craziness of the journey plays a large role into its enjoy-ability. Part of making a documentary is finding an interesting subject, and the underworld of Tickled is absolutely fascinating. It’s strange and bizarre and is taken very seriously. A lesser documentary would have been judgmental and dismissive in an overt way, but Farrier always gives the subject the respect and the curiosity it deserves. Farrier narrates the piece, and his intense tone and New Zealand accent make every instance of the word ‘tickling’ in the voice-over absolutely hysterical. This is partially because of the juxtaposition between his voice and the words, and partially because the film is so engaging that the audience needs a reminder every once in a while that the intensity doesn’t match the subject matter.
But part of the reason the filmmakers take this tickling frontier so seriously is that everyone involved tells them to. There are so many different threats, and often times the existence of the camera buys even more hostility than the people. Because the subjects don’t want to be filmed (for good reason, as the movie continues), the story isn’t easily told. However, the film is wonderfully constructed, built off of two interconnected storylines: the macro story about how this tickling empire continues to exist, and the personal story about how Farrier tries to figure all of this out. There is a surprising amount of interview footage, considering the number of people who must have said no to this, and there’s enough material to cover all of the major questions by the end.
However, there is something missing here. Reminiscent of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, the inability to get access serves as both a key plot point and the only major hindrance. There is quite a bit of people refusing to talk and not a lot of key players talking. This ultimately results in a little speculation and a lot of frustration. And the movie nears its climax, the film is forced to rely on explaining a major note rather than showing it. I’m not sure there’s anything the filmmakers could have done, but it does leave the audience wanting more. I guess that’s good in its own right.
Tickled is one of the craziest documentaries you’ll see all year. It’s not polished in the traditional sense, but it is very well made. The pace is fast and the structure is strong. What ultimately makes this documentary worthy of its existence is that it’s a character study pretending to be a culture piece. There’s an examination and indictment of a person’s actions that gives the audience something to learn and grow from. And it’s a pretty insane story along the way.