Is All Fair in Love, War and Tickling?

Director Jeanie Finlay is unsettled by the onscreen "sports" and documentary ethics in David Farrier and Dylan Reeve's Tickled.

Beware: Spoilers ahead

Watching the new documentary Tickled, ostensibly about the hidden, underground world of competitive endurance tickling, I discovered something new: I cannot bear to watch anyone being tickled. Not even for a moment. It’s even worse than actually being tickled in real life and thinking about it right now is making me squirm and my skin crawl. During the opening minutes of Tickled, I let out a series of embarrassing involuntary yelps, giggles and squeals, for which I had to apologize to the friends I was watching the film with.

At the start of Tickled, New Zealand pop culture journalist David Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reeve go all out to expose this singular fetish. At this point, it’s just a made-for-TV documentary oddity and a good fit with Farrier’s previous reporting of “the weird and bizarre side of life.” But once the tickling clips subsided, I started to feel a whole lot more uncomfortable.

Reeve and Farrier’s doc takes a darker turn as it delves into the Machiavellian machinations at the heart of the tickling universe. It exposes alleged bullying, deception and multiple identities and, in a Catfish-esque move, sets out to unmask the mysterious kingpin at the center of it all.

The impetus that drives Tickled is one that is familiar to all of us – we see something weird, something funny, something that seems to come from a whole other underground world and we ask ourselves, “What the fuck is going on here?” And, as is the case for many of us when we find something WTF online, there’s a strong desire to explore further, to follow the story down the rabbit hole. But one person’s weird is another person’s normal – everyone’s got their own private kink, after all, whether it’s tickling or My Little Pony or One Direction slash fiction. And so there’s something a little prurient, a little carnival freak show-esque about the desire to expose a fetish. And when Tickled‘s directors begin to turn the spotlight on the competitive endurance tickling scene by making their film, the feeling is – at least at first – that what they’re capturing is just another little sideshow of the weird.

However, when the film’s subjects realize their secretive world will be exposed, they respond in virulent fashion – with threats of lawsuits across several continents – and the filmmakers are led into another deeper rabbit hole, one that seems to reveal a darker side to the scene. And it’s this response, this “bullying” that fires the filmmakers’ desire to keep going. But the initial impetus, to laugh at the weird, is still there as an undercurrent, and it’s the twisting and compaction of the two threads – the apparent linking of a weird fetish with aberrant behavior – that gives the film its sometimes disquieting tone.

The uneasiness I was feeling was also about the methods the filmmakers employed to get their story. Is it OK to doorstep unwilling participants for a documentary and show up with cameras rolling – not to uncover a social justice issue a la Michael Moore, but rather to pursue the narrative of your story? Are any methods off the table if you are determined to finish your film?

Is all fair in love, war and tickling?

I’m very familiar with that territory where the line between the film and reality starts to get blurry. I am attracted to and always on the lookout for stories that would seem implausible if they were fiction. Two films I made for BBC Storyville, The Great Hip Hop Hoax and Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, are both driven by the quest for humanity at the heart of stories based around myth-making and “lies about the lies about the lies about the lies.”

I am also familiar with audiences not being able to take anything at face value anymore. The Great Hip Hop Hoax was described as a “hoax within a hoax … Hoax-ception” and many times I have been asked to prove that I am a real person and not an actress pretending to be a filmmaker. When I have pointed them in the direction of my website and IMDb page or I respond that “I am real and everything I have presented is the truth as I found it,” I am often met with the response, “Well, of course you would say that.”

I was left with unanswered questions about the humanity at the heart of Tickled. What was at play behind the multiple identities of “Jane O Brien,” our tickling mastermind? What happens now that the film is on release and the narrative is being played out with confrontations in cinema lobbies, subreddits and legal documents? Are the participants’ questions and challenges made to the filmmakers elements that perhaps should have been fully explored and confronted in the film itself, rather than spilling out messily into the wider world?

It can be difficult when the subjects of your film are less than sympathetic, but even if you don’t like the people you are making a film about, I strongly believe it shouldn’t stop you telling their story with empathy.

Jeanie Finlay is a British artist and filmmaker who creates intimate, funny and personal documentary films and artworks. Her focus is on creating compelling portraits and is obsessed with telling other people’s stories. Her work is known for its innovative approach to engaging with audiences in meaningful ways. Her documentaries includes Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, Seahorse, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound It Out, Goth Cruise and Teenland. Her latest film, Your Fat Friend, is now playing at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in New York City. (Photo by Jo Irvine.)