Documentary unearths fetish culture … and the shady, scary figure behind it
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
Journalists routinely email subjects, asking them if they’d like to participate in a story. When David Farrier — a reporter based in New Zealand who specializes in human-interest stories about the bizarre — discovered a fetish called “male competitive endurance tickling,” he emailed the company that produces many such videos, Jane O’Brien Media, to ask for an interview.
But rather than receiving a simple “no, thanks,” Farrier was met with a homophobic screed attacking “little gay Kiwis” and using the word “faggot.” The message was signed by Debbie Kuhn.
Big mistake, Debbie.
Instead of scaring him off, Farrier took up the challenge to find out just who was behind this shadowy corporation, and uncovered a trail of exploitation, cyber-bullying and, frankly, psychological disorders dating back decades. The result of his investigation —the new documentary Tickled — emerges as part Catfish, part real-life thriller and all-around captivating.
For much of the time, you’re never quite sure what to make of Tickled — is Farrier being punk’d, or is Farrier punking us? It’s part of the new skepticism bred by documentaries like A Gay Girl in Damascus and Stories We Tell: Stories structured so much like narrative films that reality and fiction seem to intersect. No one would really attack a journalist so aggressively… would they? (That’s like prodding a sleeping bear — didn’t Debbie see The Revenant!?) Jane O’Brien Media couldn’t be that vindictive to its former models… could it? And, c’mon: competitive tickling? That’s a thing?
But it’s all real. And it’s fascinating.
With the ballsiness of Woodward and Bernstein, but with slightly better haircuts, Farrier and his co-director, Dylan Reeve, track down the lawyers for Jane O’Brien Media and surreptitiously film them, learning that their corporate overlord is well-funded and venomous… even though none of them have ever met “Jane” herself. Even her long-standing business associates have done Jane’s bidding, but — when pressed — can’t say for sure that Jane exists at all.
What if she doesn’t? And if not, who is behind these homoerotic tickle parties (and worse, the cyber-stalking that emerges from them)?
Farrier’s investigation is itself compelling, like those “gotcha” news segments that Mike Wallace used to do, but he intersperses the journalism with a campy, almost bewildered curiosity about male tickling, how gay it is and how anti-gay Jane O’Brien Media is. (And we all know the truth about homophobia: The more you protest…)
Farrier himself is a quirky screen presence, with his Hobbit-y accent and calm demeanor… most of the time. He does get rattled occasionally, in moments that screw with you like an intellectual version of The Blair Witch Project (another film that mind-fucked audiences about the boundaries of a documentary). Like him, you spend a lot of time asking yourself, “What the hell — is this really happening?” That’s great storytelling.
Editor’s note: Hal Karp, who lives in Dallas, was incorrectly identified in an earlier draft as one of the subject’s business associates. He is, rather, a journalist. The reference to Mr. Karp has been deleted.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 29, 2016.