New Zealand theatrical release poster
|Directed by||David Farrier |
|Produced by||Carthew Neal|
|Narrated by||David Farrier|
|Edited by||Simon Coldrick|
A Ticklish Tale
|Distributed by||Magnolia Pictures (US)|
Tickled is a 2016 New Zealand documentary about "competitive endurance tickling" and videos featuring it, and the practices of those producing the videos, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. The film explores possible legal and ethical issues with certain individuals making the videos, and has itself been the subject of legal challenges. A follow-up special, The Tickle King, aired on HBO in February 2017.
David Farrier, a New Zealand television reporter whose beat focuses on "quirky and odd stories", sees videos online about an activity described as "competitive endurance tickling", in which young athletic men are restrained and tickled by each other; he begins to research it for a story. He requests an interview with the videos' producer, Jane O'Brien Media, but the company refuses to "associate with a homosexual journalist" (Farrier is actually bisexual). Since Farrier considers the act of tickling other men "pretty gay," he is confused and offended by the hostile response, but intrigued. Farrier partners with television producer Dylan Reeve to learn more about tickling videos and the people who produce them.
After blogging about the incident, they receive legal threats from Jane O'Brien Media, who send Kevin Clarke and two other representatives to New Zealand. Although their interactions are superficially cordial, the Jane O'Brien Media people seem intent on bullying the investigators into dropping the project. Farrier and Reeve respond by traveling to Los Angeles, and find the representatives at a site where the company records videos, but are turned away at the door.
Researching the phenomenon further, they uncover information about a person known as Terri DiSisto (alias "Terri Tickle"), who pioneered recruiting and distributing tickling videos online in the 1990s. They interview independent tickling-video producer Richard Ivey whose operations are a low-key affair with an acknowledged homoerotic aspect. They speak to a few former participants in Jane O'Brien Media's videos who describe coercive and manipulative treatment by the producers, such as defamation campaigns against them, exposing their personal information and contacting school or work associates to discredit them as homosexual or as sexual deviants, in retaliation for challenging or speaking out against the company. A local recruiter in Muskegon, Michigan, describes "audition" videos he had helped make, which were published by O'Brien Media without the participants' consent.
Farrier and Reeve chance upon documents on a defunct tickling-video web site, which link Jane O'Brien Media to David D'Amato, the former school administrator behind the "Terri Tickle" alias. They learn that D'Amato had served a six-month prison sentence for disabling computer systems at two different universities on multiple dates, in retaliation against an 18-year-old male student who attempted to terminate their online relationship, which began when the young man was 17. They determine that D'Amato now lives on a substantial inheritance from his father, a successful lawyer. After considerable effort to locate him, they confront him on the street, to which he responds with additional legal threats. Before returning to New Zealand, Farrier contacts D'Amato's stepmother for comment; she implicitly confirms her stepson's "tickling" past, and Farrier informs her that he believes D'Amato is still involved in it.
Under the working title Tickle King: The Hunt for the Truth in Competitive Tickling, Farrier and Reeve raised NZ$29,570 on Kickstarter in June 2014, intended primarily to cover the costs of the crew traveling to the United States for a week. The project also received funding from the New Zealand Film Commission.
The film was screened at the January 2016 Sundance Film Festival, after which Magnolia Pictures picked up distribution and HBO picked up US TV rights. In March 2016 it was presented as part of the True/False Film Festival.
The film was released to New Zealand theaters on 27 May 2016. It was released by Magnolia Pictures to US theaters on 17 June, and in Australia and the United Kingdom on 19 August.
Tickled has received critical acclaim. In a review headlined "fetish documentary goes from giggly to grim", Nigel Smith of The Guardian gives the movie four (of five) stars. Dennis Harvey of Variety states the onscreen presence of the filmmakers "is justified because the harassment they experience in pursuing the story becomes a big part of its narrative". The Salt Lake Tribune, giving it 4.5 stars, said it was "an act of journalistic courage" and that they "reveal the harm that can be done by an individual with a lot of money and a vindictive streak". Manohla Dargis of The New York Times, giving it a Critic's Pick, said "Farrier and Mr. Reeve see the humor, but they also see the pathos—because it's all fun and giggles until someone gets hurt."
At Rotten Tomatoes the film has an approval rating of 93% based on reviews from 106 critics. Metacritic gives the film a score of 76 out of 100, based on reviews from 28 critics, indicating "generally favorable" reviews.
The shocking truth is uncomfortably pursued to its fullest, and the result is a riveting piece of investigative journalism.
- — Darian Lusk, New York Observer
Response from the documentary's subjects
In the movie, D'Amato is seen accusing Farrier of being in America illegally, by using a tourist visa for journalism. Farrier, who routinely travels internationally on assignment, states he was on a journalist visa. Farrier also shows documents from O'Brien Media, coaching international video participants to travel under a tourist visa when coming to the US for paid performances.
After the premiere screening at Sundance, in March 2016, D'Amato filed a federal lawsuit against the filmmakers for making false accusations, including the implication that D'Amato used extortion and abused minors, and stating that D'Amato has no relationship with O'Brien Media. In response, Farrier told The Salt Lake Tribune that "given the number of hollow legal threats we faced during the making of it, it's almost refreshing to see a real case being filed by real lawyers."
In June 2016, Kevin Clarke of O'Brien Media created a website to counter the documentary.
D'Amato attended the 18 June 2016 screening at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles, and confronted Dylan Reeve, saying, "You need to lawyer up. You need to get criminal counsel." Clarke argued with Reeve during a public question-and-answer session after the film, saying "The film is a piece of garbage full of lies. Release the audio tapes that show you're lying. And if you don't release it, it's the same as admitting you're lying."
D'Amato filed a $40 million defamation and slander lawsuit in Nassau County court alleging that his stepmother Dorothy D'Amato made statements in the film with the intention to injure his business, causing mental distress.
D'Amato died at age 55, on 13 March 2017. The filmmakers posted a statement on their web site that they were "incredibly sad" to learn of it, and asking that his death be treated with respect.
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