This year, Hot Docs was rocked by an unconventional star; a documentary laced with conspiracy, intrigue, and tickling. The New Zealand doc, directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve, initially attempted to bring the unconventional sport of Competitive Endurance Tickling to the public’s attention. In so doing, Farrier and Reeve found themselves in a mess they weren’t prepared for. What started out as a fun exposé very quickly became a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with the directors chasing leads that lead to horrifying stories of manipulation, greed, extortion, identity theft, and harassment.
There isn’t much that can be said about the documentary. It unravels like a thriller, with each layer peeling back to reveal something new and shocking. But its impact lies in the element of surprise; the less you know going in, the better your experience with the material will be. I had the good fortune of being able to talk to Farrier about the doc, an interesting process in itself given how little can be said without spoiling ones viewing experience. The below information may seem cryptic to those who have yet to see the film. To those who have, they will be enlightening. But proceed with caution, and maybe read what follows after seeing the flick. Tickled is playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema until July 6th. Don’t miss out on this incredible documentary.
ARIEL FISHER: During the making of this documentary, you had come under attack from several sources, legal and otherwise. At any point during the making of this documentary, or following its release, were you afraid for your safety?
DAVID FARRIER: I was totally reassessing everything the whole way through, and my opinion was always shifting. I can’t speak for Dylan, but imagine we felt similar about things.
Quite early on when we were making this, after we’d launched our Kickstarter campaign to raise money to get to LA to start shooting, the company we were investigating sent three people from New York to New Zealand to talk to us, to basically convince us we shouldn’t make a doco. So these guys represent this company that’s been sending me incredibly homophobic emails and just generally being bullying in tone, and the company that’s threatening to sue me. And to sue Dylan. And they wanted to have this meeting in a hotel room. Their hotel room. There was NO WAY I was going to go and be locked in a room with 3 guys who’d flown in from New York.
I suppose – being in America – I was always a bit concerned about the gun thing as well. Like, if you’re waiting to confront people who don’t want to be confronted, you always have in the back of your head “I wonder what’s in the glove compartment?!”
AF: Have the threats you received during the making of the film continued since the film has been screened at festivals?
DF: In different forms. I was served while attending a filmmakers lunch in Missouri at the True/False film festival.
AF: The three men who were sent to Australia to dissuade you from pursuing things any further were also at the shoot you went to in the States. Were they really lawyers, or just masquerading in order to put you off the trail?
DF: They were sent to New Zealand – easy mistake to make! They weren’t lawyers – I think someone in a review called them lawyers, but they never stated that and we never did. Basically they were representatives, who were all directly tied to the world of Competitive Endurance Tickling. One of them produced the shoots, for instance.
AF: How aware was everyone involved in the various companies of who they were working for?
DF: It’s really unclear. And I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. I think some of them knew a lot of what was actually going on behind the scenes, and some of the knew only a tiny little bit, and were maybe pretending not to know anything at all they could justify what they were doing.
AF: How many people were you able to find who had participated in the tickling videos? How many responded at all, and how many people agreed to speak to you? Was it difficult not only finding people in the first place, but convincing them to speak with you at all, let alone agree to go on the record?
DF: Over a hundred. I took a few weeks off work at one point just to dedicate to finding talent for the documentary, and part of that was former ticklees. Dylan was helping with all this too. It was difficult, but Facebook helped – I don’t think Facebook does this anymore, but back then you could pay 99 cents or so, and you could message people you weren’t friend with on Facebook, and the message wouldn’t go to their “other” box, but straight to their inbox. So my credit card for a while was just giants lists of 99c transactions! Once we found them.. Which was hard… if they got back to me, it was a matter of explaining what I was doing. You have to understand the last time a mysterious figure reached out to them about tickling, things went south! And I was just a mysterious person reaching out to talk about tickling. So it was a strange thing. But I am lucky in that I have a small profile here thanks to reporting on TV, and I was in this Netflix show called Short Poppies, so at least they could google my name and find out I was legit.
AF: What’s your goal with this film? What do you hope to accomplish by putting this out there and telling this story?
DF: A film seemed like the best tool Dylan and I had to expose what this company was doing – and the wide extent of bullying going on. In watching it, I hope that people think twice about doing a competitive endurance tickling shoot. And I hope that in exposing it the bullying will stop.
I also think it serves as a warning about the dangers of the internet. Not in a scaremongering way, just a reminder of how weird and dark it can get. It’s also a look at power and control, and how those with money pull the strings.
AF: The websites, as well as Facebook accounts, are still live and fully operational, which surprises me. Do you think they’ll go under the more this film gets seen?
DF: Most things about this experience surprise me. You’d think all that would be pulled down, right? Or made inactive. It’s not. It’s a mystery to me. I like that people can see this film and then jump online and do some digging themselves and find out that – yep – it’s all real. This is all real. It’s not a mocumetary.
AF: Were you at all prepared for how big this became? For how large and insidious this scandal actually was?
DF: No, not at all. Every step of the way it got bigger and bigger. I wake up to this day and pinch myself that I didn’t just dream this whole thing up. Not just the film, and what we made – but the world we encountered. It was big. It is big.
AF: At the end of the film, you get a huge amount of information from a very involved contact. Up until that time, it seems as if it was painfully difficult to get anyone at all who wasn’t a journalist to talk about what they knew. Why were they so quick to speak to you? Or was that just edited for time in the film? Was it difficult to get the information from them, or were they more resistant than we see in the film?
DF: It’s just that age old thing of talk to enough people, and eventually someone will talk back. If that person hadn’t, I would have pushed on to someone else. You have to. You have to just pick up the phone and call people. You have to knock on doors.
AF: Did you ever expect such an incredible response to this film, critically as well as publicly? How has it been for you to see the impact this film has had?
DF: No, I got lost in it. I think we all did. You have your head in this thing for 2 years, you don’t realise how good or terrible the thing is that you’ve made. I mean I was immensely proud of it, but didn’t know how it would be received. That premiere at Sundance I felt sick. I felt ill. I was in the back row watching people’s behaviour. Would anyone leave? Were they walking out because they hated it or because they needed the toilet? There were a lot of people who needed the toilet. I think the whole team is flattered and humbled by it all.
AF: Are you still connected to this material, or working on anything connected to this conspiratorial chain of companies? Are you pushing forward at all in the hopes of getting these sites shut down and getting those involved charged for their harassment?
DF: I am still following the story. How and if I will tell it I am figuring it out. But you don’t take up two years working on something and then just drop it, you know? As for getting people charged – I don’t have the time right now to chase anything like that – my hope is that if things organically happen from people watching the film, then great. All the facts are there on screen.