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Anyone who has had to do questionable web searches may have accidentally fallen into the weird wormholes that exist on video sites. Those searches might have led to a seemingly harmless action like tickling. That alone doesn’t sound too strange until you learn about something called “competitive endurance tickling” and watch some athletic young men mount one another: no gender equality here. It’s both a little uncomfortable and a little confusing. Who is the target audience for this type of video, and why is this not a better-known sort of thing? Is this more than what appears to be a fetish?

The documentary Tickled tries to answer this question by going straight to the source—that is, the Facebook page of the media group behind some of the most popular videos. The filmmakers, Dylan Reeve and David Farrier, unknowingly open the floodgates of a world of harassment, accusations, and presumably expensive flights from their native New Zealand to the United States for the resulting documentary Tickled. The disturbing experiences of the filmmakers and participants make for a compelling and often baffling story.

Farrier, the narrator of the film, explains that he is a journalist who specializes in odd subjects and was attracted to the videos of the sport. The Facebook page that Farrier and co. contact, Jane O’Brien Media, responded with hostility directed against the “homosexual journalist” who contacted them and explained that the sport was “exclusively heterosexual.” Suddenly, the tickling sport interest piece became less fun.

What may be the most giggle-worthy sport of all time may also be one of the most homophobic, if this representative was to be believed. Farrier and team decided then to explore the background of this media group and the participating ticklers.

The filmmakers learned that at least participant had no idea what the videos were for, and upon trying to leave the productions to do other, more socially presentable jobs, encountered even greater hostility. The participant issued a takedown notice on a video posted to YouTube to protect his reputation, and began receiving threats. After Google searching himself, he found it re-uploaded on numerous other sites along with other documents, which were full of personally identifying information, including e-mail and phone numbers.

Farrier’s team found themselves on the receiving end of threats, too, which becomes the catalyst for much of the action of the film that frames their investigation. Tickled is presented with humor about the situation, matching the sort of nonchalant attitude about a possibly serious situation that I’ve grown to appreciate from other well-known New Zealanders.  They decide to find out as much as they can and travel to the U.S., where the bulk of the film takes place.

At the same time, the serious situation persists, and legal action is inevitable. Accusations are thrown from both sides, though the filmmakers do attempt to get the other side, they spend most of their time figuring out how to “ambush interview” the subjects. Arguably, the film is one-sided since the faceless overlord behind the mysterious subject is threatening the filmmakers. It is unclear if the filmmakers are actually being sued during the making of the film, and if they are, whether or not they have legal assistance, or if the case even has justification in their country.

As the filmmakers chase down this person behind the curtain, they learn more about the tickling sport, tickling as a tactic in mixed martial arts, and the perspective of the tickling fetishist. One “Florida man” began making these videos for his own fetish site in the early dotcom era, and is still successful today. The scene featuring his preferred style of tickling portrays the fetish as a sort of sub-BDSM, so in reality it isn’t really weird, just a little bit uncomfortable to watch.

In the beginning, I felt uncomfortable because I wasn’t sure that I was ready to watch two hours of sport tickling, but by the end my discomfort came from an entirely different place, where investigative journalism meets the surprising truth. The trailer prepares viewers for the tonal twist, but it is perhaps less scary in the full film than the preview implies.

Tickled is solidly entertaining, and presumably will gain more attention in the coming months: the film was shown at Sundance and now has a distribution deal with HBO. True Detective season three may not happen, but if it does, I have found the co-leads and the story.

The wit of the filmmakers is present throughout the dramatic moments as a tension-breaker, and the final scenes are well worth the build-up. Ultimately, the satisfaction of Tickled comes not from the otherwise fascinating perspective of recorded tickling, but rather the filmmaker’s self-aware exploration of circumstances in which exploitation exists under the guise of sport.

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