Fetishes. Everyone has ’em. For a small but intensely committed number across the globe, there is excitement in watching young, hunky men being restrained & mercilessly tickled. When journalists David Farrier & Dylan Reeve discover this niche interest, they pursue the story, & are met with defensiveness, anger and homophobia. As they follow the leads, they find an industry shrouded in lies, money and fear of exposure. The documentary about their experiences, Tickled, is a smart, inquisitive exploration of this secrecy. It subverts expectations in a way few films are capable of.
With the ubiquity of cameras and ever-expanding range of footage, documentary-making might seem easier than ever before. Almost any moment can be filmed. Farrier and Reeve make good use of this flexibility, capturing encounters at airport arrivals, the ‘tickling’ offices and on the street that mutate quickly from amusing to painfully awkward and potentially dangerous. They are never afraid to leave the camera rolling, and their inclusion of these spontaneous flashpoints adds credibility to a story that seems to have a fraction of fiction. But there is equal talent in the telling of the tale; both live footage and archival clips are woven together to create a mystery that hooks us in through its charming oddness, then grips us tightly with its hatred and constant power abuse.
While Reeve is often behind the camera, Farrier provides the voiceover for the film and ‘presents’ what we see. With his languid, comforting vocals and bespectacled face switching from intrigued to concerned with ease, comparisons to Louis Theroux are unavoidable. They are deserved too; it is his calmness when faced by weird, discomforting and sometimes scary situations that allows him to get to the truth beneath the tickling. A combination of affable personality and fiery conviction in his subject is reminiscent of Michael Moore. As with many of Theroux’s shows, Tickled takes a very particular interest that would never reach the mainstream, and instead of ostracising its participants, shows the human elements of what is happening. If you’re a tickling enthusiast (or if it, erm, tickles your fancy) fear not; this is entirely respectful of this hobby, depicting ticklers (ticklists?) as cheerful, normal folk. Where it differs from Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends and the like is its movement; this is not a painting of a lifestyle but a narrative, with beginning, middle and end.
Tickled is a story about tickling, but also about power, competition, and the effect of our actions in a digital age. The revelations in the film are far too juicy to include here, but it is safe to say neither the company creating videos, Jane O’Brien Media, nor its eponymous boss are all they seem. And while hobbies on the margins of culture could previously be kept there, now they are filmed, saved and uploaded to all corners of the web. As Mark Zuckerberg’s mistreated ex-girlfriend says in The Social Network, the internet isn’t written in pencil, it’s written in ink.
Thanks partly to the ongoing protestations of its subjects and to celebrity shoutouts from everyone from Britney Spears to (associate producer) Stephen Fry, Tickled has kept headline writers happy. What Farrier and Reeve have accomplished is deeper than that though, and moves from Farrier’s métier of covering quirky stuff to a impressive, important piece of investigative journalism, which is formed into a gripping film. You will laugh. Then you’ll stop laughing. Then you’ll stop breathing
Tickled is currently showing across the U.K., although don’t wait as it may not be in cinemas too much longer. It’s definitely worth home-viewing, and who knows – when it’s time to give out awards perhaps the folks in charge might see the funny side. And the deeply uncomfortable one.