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Directors: David Farrier and Dylan Reeve
In the lobby of the Embassy theatre sits a reclining leather chair, similar to what you’d find in a hairdressers. Attached to the arms and footrest, however, are manacles for ankles and wrists. Perfect for administering an unwanted haircut, perhaps. Or, in a more sinister twist, for holding somebody captive while you tickle them, mercilessly.
The chair is a fitting addition for the night of Friday April 22nd, when the Embassy hosted the Wellington premiere of documentary Tickled, in conjunction with the New Zealand International Film Festival’s Autumn Events programme. The project of former Nightline heartthrob and pop-culture journalist David Farrier, and friend Dylan Reeve, Tickled has been gaining traction after much talked-of appearances at Sundance and the True/False Film Fest over in the States. Now, in Wellington, an expectant crowd are filing into the theatre, glancing warily at the tickling chair as they pass.
The trailer for the film manages to conceal as much as it reveals. Footage of men in athletic gear being tickled, death threats, Farrier looking perfectly ruffled and anxious, all had my interest piqued. But was this for real? It had the trappings of a mockumentary—there’s no way that tickling could be this sinister.
A couple of years ago, Farrier came across a video on Facebook advertising for young male athletes to compete in something called ‘Competitive Endurance Tickling’, with offers of significant amounts of cash and all-expenses paid trips to Los Angeles. After reaching out to the Facebook page for an interview on the strange enterprise, Farrier started to receive aggressive, homophobic slurs in his inbox—along with legal threats. Naturally, he decided to start digging deeper, along with friend and television producer Reeve.
The story that unfolds is more perverse and menacing than I could have imagined, and is skillfully crafted by Farrier and Reeve, both in debut directing roles. Farrier narrates the film in his trademark deadpan style, and of the pair he has the most screen-time, serving as our guide to this very weird world. Where he boldly goes, Reeve follows behind with the camera, capturing awkward encounters and high-adrenaline moments. Giving too much of the story away would be a disservice, as shock and disbelief are an integral part of the viewing experience—suffice to say, there is nothing innocent about this kind of tickling, or the people involved.
Watching two guys from New Zealand trying to decode such a weird situation, often encountering the brashness we’ve come to expect from some Americans, felt slightly surreal. Farrier and Reeve were right when they said before the film that Kiwi audiences would really appreciate what they were trying to do—the cinema erupted into laughter throughout the film, showing that sometimes that’s all you can do in the face of ridiculousness.
The cinematography is excellent; in particular, scenes of a wintery Michigan city stood out for me, perfectly capturing the bleakness and toil of a living in a place with few economic prospects. Farrier, Reeve, and their production team have clearly put a lot of consideration into how they want the film to come across. This isn’t a mere puff-piece on a wacky subject, but rather an examination of power, circumstance, and the things that drive us. Accompanying it all is a wonderful soundtrack from Kiwi musician Rodi Kirk, in collaboration with Florian Zweitnig.
Tickled delivered everything that I want from a documentary, answering all my key questions while still leaving plenty to ponder after walking out of the cinema. See it when it is released New Zealand-wide from May 26.