Right at the start of his brain-exploding documentary Tickled, director David Farrier undermines his journalistic credentials. As a pop culture TV reporter in Auckland, he specialized in superficialities. Sitting on a couch with a very young Justin Bieber, he asked hard-hitting questions like, "What do you make of New Zealanders so far?" Shrugged Justin, "I think that they've been nice."
One day, Farrier tripped across the perfect dumb story: competitive endurance tickling. In the videos he found, the athletes — all buff, all young men — strapped each other to mats and dug their fingers into armpits and feet until the sweaty hunks begged for mercy. Picture an American Apparel ad that sounds like a snuff film, pleasure and pain and six-pack abs writhing in agony. The bouts are sponsored by a company called Jane O'Brien Media, which offers each contestant $1,500 and a free trip to Los Angeles. So Farrier fired off a fast interview request.
He was denied — and then some. "To be brutally frank, association with a homosexual journalist is not something that we will embrace," read the email he received from Jane O’Brien employee Debbie Kuhn, who goes on to call Farrier a "faggot" and "little gay Kiwi."
Some people would have quit. Farrier and his codirector Dylan Reeve decided to make a film. Then three more employees flew from L.A. to Auckland, first class, to warn the men to stop their documentary before their millionaire boss ruined their lives — if they pursued it, they'd be sued into poverty. "Rich people don't play by the same set of rules," threatens one. "If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace, do it."
As it turns out, competitive endurance tickling is no laughing matter. Without spoiling the specifics, Tickled is a saga of blackmail, lawsuits, hidden cameras, furtive stakeouts, doxxing, disposable cash, INS threats, MMA fighting, exploited kids, racism, ruined lives, revenge, and fear. Cross this secretive cabal, and these tickle torturers will stop at nothing, from sending one victim cruel poems about his dead brother to faking threats against the White House from their scapegoat's computer IP.
It's also the story of a man realizing he is a real journalist, after all. What Farrier and Reeve uncover, and the lengths they go to uncover it, astounds. (Farrier's interviewing strategy is a deliberate, gosh-darn innocence that goads his subjects into blabbing things we can't believe we're hearing.) And we're legitimately scared for the filmmakers. Early on, they jet to California to spy on a tickling shoot. They lurk outside of a warehouse and watch a large group of men walk in. We hear giggles. It's chilling.
When I saw Tickled at Sundance this January, I thought it was a fun trifle — except for the Jane O'Brien rep, the one we see here promising blast furnaces, who sat in the theater and scribbled furious notes. In the months since, Tickled has felt like a warning sign of the mediapocalypse. We've now seen vengeful billionaires like Peter Thiel and Donald Trump use their cash and power to bankrupt Gawker and blacklist The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Politico. That freedom of the press is exactly why Farrier vowed to fight Jane O'Brien Media. "Something about bullies with way too much money has convinced me I shouldn't drop it,” he says, before risking his career for what could have been a very silly scandal. May we all have his courage.