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Tickled

Year: 2016
Production Co: A Ticklish Tale
Director: David Farrier/Dylan Reeve

Since documentaries became so popular in the Michael Moore era, there's also been a creeping sense with many of them that what you're watching has been carefully staged so as to appear real – there's no documentary police ensuring the wool's not being pulled over cinemagoers' eyes, after all.

There's a tendency to believe everything we see in documentaries because it feels like a pure form of cinema where cinephiles like the rest of us seek out and deliver incredible stories – surely they wouldn't lie? Er... cast your mind back a few years to 2008's American Teen, which copped so much flack for being completely fake the director and distributor backtracked and started calling it a 'docudrama' to get ahead of the bad press.

If you have trouble watching a documentary without your cynic's hat jammed firmly on, Tickled should mostly assuage your fears. The website director/star David Farrier looks into (janeobrienmedia.com) is still online, the business behind it still operating despite the legal activity described in the movie. There's even a website that's apparently been launched by Farrier's antagonist in the movie to counter his claims (TickledMovie.info – although there's nothing on it but contact details for a law firm).

So not only is most of what Farrier says in the movie more or less verifiable, the fallout from the whole thing is still going on. David D'Amato, the guy he found at the end of the money trail is a very wealthy and protected former school administrator who served time for tampering with university computer systems. Farrier and his filmmaking partner Dylan Reeve also unmasked D'Amato as the brains behind a fetish tickling website and persona dating back to the early days of the web.

D'Amato then showed up at the Los Angeles premiere of the film this past June after a very successful Sundance debut, telling Farrier and Reeve they need to 'lawyer up'. In fact there are two defamation lawsuits still outstanding, as Farrier told the media recently.

But no, you didn't misread the above – it's about tickling. A reporter for a variety news show in Auckland, Farrier came across the underground movement of endurance tickling – where young man are paid to be tied up or restrained, tickled and filmed – in the US and decided to do a story on it.

He contacted the company behind one popular competition, Jane O'Brien Media, and Tickled chronicles what happened next, a story so weird and that turns so dark you often forget it's about tickling. There's so much clandestine talk about 'recruiting' and 'cells' it feels more like a CIA operation to uncover domestic terrorism.

It starts when a representative of the company emails Farrier a very hostile email full of personal attacks warning him in no uncertain terms to back off. No sooner has Farrier started to dig deeper than three 'representatives' from Jane O'Brien Media land in New Zealand to try to talk him out of pursuing the story, showing up all smiles at the airport as he films them but soon turning very adversarial.

Farrier and Reeve travel to America and start to uncover a whole rotten underground movement of blackmail, computer fraud and identity theft surrounding the tickling scene. One interviewee tells them about strings of young men who've fallen prey to the promises of easy money only to find their reputations and livelihoods held to ransom by the company – and ultimately the guy – behind it all.

Threats of lawsuits then start coming at Farrier, Reeve and their producers as well, but they finally track the paper and digital trial back to D'Amato and confront him near his home in New York.

What Farrier thought was the story of a quirky sport turns instead into an expose of a very powerful and apparently very sexually conflicted man (bordering on sick, as it turns out from a final conversation with his stepmother) on a dangerous power trip.

The movie's far from perfect – an extended midsection sequence where they travel to Florida to meet with a legitimate, upfront tickling video purveyor feels like it belonged in the movie they thought there were making before it all turned so dark and threatening, and they left it in for lack of enough material overall.

But the stuff that is uncovered – if true (or at least, if not strongly coloured by confirmation bias on the part of the filmmakers and us in turn) – is the kind of investigation thriller you couldn't make up if you tried.

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