‘Tickled’ Co-Director David Farrier On Uncovering The Dark And Dangerous World Of “Competitive Endurance Tickling”

Having uncovered the dark and dangerous world of “competitive endurance tickling” in his documentary Tickled, we speak to co-director David Farrier about the sport/fetish and the incredible journey he and his creative partner Dylan Reeve went on to uncover the truth behind it.

Happening upon a “competitive endurance tickling” video sent to him by a friend, New Zealand entertainment journalist and lover of all things weird and wonderful David Farrier thought he had found a great subject for a short two-minute human interest piece.

Featuring groups of Adidas-clad hunks tied to beds and held down as they tickle each other, what at first sounded innocent enough, was quite clearly more than just a hobby or sport. Contacting Jane O’Brien Media – the company hosting the videos – to see if they’d be interested in participating in the story, the reply he got was not at all what he expected.

“That first reply to my Facebook post was just so bizarre,” he says of the abusive and homophobic message he got back from the company, that flatly refused to “associate with a homosexual journalist,” and later called him a “faggot”.

Frankly surprised by the vitriol of the response as well as its blatant homophobia – the videos were after all pretty clearly homoerotic – Farrier refused to give up the hunt, calling on his computer savvy colleague Dylan Reeve to help him investigate the company and “sport” further. What Reeve found was an international web of domain names and websites associated with the company, some of which were sites outing and shaming participants in the videos.

Writing a blog post about their revelations, Farrier and Reeve were soon threatened with legal action on top of the homophobic and abusive emails they were receiving almost daily. Jane O’Brien Media even sent representatives to New Zealand to try and dissuade the duo from pursuing the story.

Instead of being scared off though, Farrier and Reeve decided to meet the team of representatives at the airport, holding up a multicolored homemade sign to welcome them to New Zealand. Not exactly the standard response to lawyers issuing cease and desist notices, Farrier nevertheless feels like the sign was a logical reaction to the company’s tactics of bullying and intimidation.

“It just seemed like there wasn’t any other way to approach that,” he says breezily.

“I think that’s the New Zealand way, we’re pretty low key and we just kind of get things done and get on with it. When they said they were sending three people to New Zealand it just seemed like the logical thing to do to turn up at the airport with a wacky sign and wait for them to arrive.”

Director David Farrier greeting the legal team from Jane O'Brien Media at Auckland airport

Director David Farrier greeting the legal team from Jane O’Brien Media at Auckland airport

Channeling the mild-mannered nonchalance of Louis Theroux, with a hint of the unflinching renegade spirit of Werner Herzog, Farrier and Reeve not only met the representatives at the airport, they brought along a camera crew as well. The resulting interaction, in a way, plays out like a condensed version of the full film.

“I think they were just so surprised to see me there, their first reaction was ‘oh well we better be friendly to this guy’,” Farrier says of the meeting, adding that he thinks his “sign kind of distracted them for a while”.

That didn’t last, though, as Farrier explains, “the minute they noticed the camera the mood changed pretty quickly.”

“It goes from light to dark very quickly and the whole thing is just socially awkward and I think that sums up the dynamic of the rest of the film.”

With the legal team objecting to being filmed and seeking to set up a meeting behind closed doors, the intrepid filmmakers weren’t about to let them evade scrutiny. Smuggling an audio recording device into the meeting – exploiting a New Zealand legal statute that allows anything to be recorded as long as one of the parties being recorded is aware of it – Farrier and Reeve captured the representatives’ attempts to intimidate them into dropping the story.

“I wasn’t about to let them dictate the terms of the documentary,” said Farrier, playing down the courage it took to get the recording.

“This is a company that we knew was up to some pretty dodgy stuff, and they’d be incredibly threatening to me personally. These guys, Jane O’Brien Media, had been sending me daily insults calling me a faggot and more, so there was no way I was going to miss a chance to record the conversations that we were having.”

Taking the incredible lengths the company were willing to go to to keep things quiet as a challenge, Farrier and Reeve decided there was no way they would give up on the story. Funding a three-week trip to the U.S. on Kickstarter, neither Farrier nor Reeve had any idea how big the story really was, not how crazy their lives were about to get.

“We thought three weeks would be enough to do the film, but then, of course, things escalated and we had to go back for another three weeks,” he explained.

“So by the time we got to talking about “tickle cells” (self-contained groups of men who produce videos for Jane O’Brien Media) and you know the global empire of Competitive Endurance Tickling… the scale of it, I think, surprised all of us.”

Surprised though they were by how big this thing proved to be, they were never discouraged. Traveling all over the U.S. and spending weeks tracking down former participants and producers, and speaking to those rare few who were willing to open up about their experiences with Jane O’Brien Media and “competitive endurance tickling”, the duo ended up uncovering a labyrinthine tickling empire with numerous victims left in its wake.

With all the lies and subterfuges laid bare by the end, the picture that Tickled paints has less to do with tickling (in the traditional sense) than it does with shame. The fact that such videos could be used to blackmail people – and in some cases ruin their lives – speaks volumes about the world we live in and its prejudices.

“It’s unfortunate that what is being held over these young men and what is being used to ruin their lives is that they are gay, and that for them, is a bad thing. And it shouldn’t be right?” asks Farrier.

More than just that, though, the film also looks at what kind of a person would do something like this, to so many people, ultimately questioning a system that facilitates such behavior as well as, in a way, creating it.

“Part of the power play made by Jane O’Brien Media is that these young men are often from really conservative families, they don’t have a lot of money, they’re from red states, so having ‘a gay tickling video’ is a bad thing. So that’s an interesting point to look at, how if society was a bit more advanced in certain parts of the world it wouldn’t be a problem,” Farrier says.

The same shame that motivates Jane O’Brien media to remain anonymous and try and gag anyone attempting to look into their practices is the same shame that ensures the victims stay quiet. Tickled then is almost a public service announcement for transparency and acceptance of our own desires and those of others.

Or as Farrier puts it “how being open and at peace with your own desires, whatever they may be, is a lot healthier than being closeted and secretive about them.”

Tickled is in select theaters this Thursday 18th August