The most frustrating thing about David Farrier and Dylan Reeve’s 2016 documentary Tickled is that it has no real resolution. Although the pair of New Zealand filmmakers ultimately made contact with David D’Amato, the strange, reclusive man responsible for publishing hundreds of “competitive endurance tickling” videos online, he never admitted to any wrongdoing, or agreed to have a real conversation unless it was about legal threats.
That’s where HBO’s new 20-minute special comes in. The Tickle King, which premiered February 27th, documents the aftermath of Tickled’s first screenings at film festivals and in theaters, when private detectives and D’Amato himself show up and cause disruptions. Basically, it asks one question: what happens when the subjects of a controversial documentary try to retaliate against it?
What happens when a documentary subject tries to retaliate?
Whatever you think of when you hear the phrase “competitive endurance tickling” is close enough to the truth. It’s sport-like in name only; basically, one boy (always a boy) is tied down while several other boys tickle him. Early on in the documentary, Farrier and Reeve become obsessed with the company behind these tickling videos, Jane O’Brien Media, which sends the filmmakers threatening emails when they start snooping around. But Tickled and The Tickle King both left me with a gnawing, but mostly ignorable sensation that neither of these films tell the full story, either intentionally, or because they just couldn’t figure it out.
Two people in Tickled have publicly disavowed Farrier’s portrayal of them. First is D’Amato, the trust fund kingpin of Jane O’Brien Media. (In the ‘90s, he was known online only as TerriTickle.) D’Amato, posing as a woman, apparently lured young men into his tickle empire with cash, cars, and the promise that the videos were only for his personal use. When the men tried to stop working for “Terri,” D’Amato published their clips online without consent, and sent disparaging emails to their schools, bosses, and families. In 2001, he was found guilty of misdemeanor charges of computer fraud and abuse, a sentence that came with limited jail time. It’s easy enough for the filmmakers to make a case about D’Amato’s unpleasantness, but they can’t do much about it, either.
The second unhappy subject is Kevin Clarke, a producer for Jane O’Brien Media. He’s a slightly more sympathetic character than D’Amato, because it’s unclear to what extent he’s aware of the kind of harassment his boss is responsible for, or what he really does at all. While D’Amato has relied on legal threats against Farrier and Reeve to clear his name, Clarke has created a website dedicated to exposing Tickled as a fraudulent documentary. The website, which lives at the misleading URL tickledmovie.info, is called Tickled, The Truth.
Among the Tickled claims Clarke disputes is the idea that Jane O’Brien Media is a homophobic company. On his website, Clarke says that during the filming of Tickled, he and two assistants flew to Auckland to meet with the filmmakers to “dispel homophobia accusations,” but in the documentary, Farrier only says the men visited to tell him to drop the project entirely. Clarke claims that he and his assistants are all gay men, and online, he documents his experience of losing friends to AIDS in the ‘80s. (It’s true that D’Amato himself has said homophobic things, but he is allegedly an anonymous figure to Clarke.)
Clarke also contends that many conversations he explicitly asked to be off-the-record were included in the documentary. Farrier admits as much in the film, noting several meetings with Clarke that were secretly recorded. Clarke also alleges that Farrier promised to blur his young assistant’s face in the final cut, but it appears in the documentary uncensored.
So much of this story is hard to confirm
Other than the recordings, which obviously wade into ethically murky territory, Clarke’s issues with the film are mostly impossible to confirm. His blog posts are rambling and slightly unhinged, with titles like UNBELIEVABLE LIES CONTINUE. He writes like a conspiracy theorist. But whether Clarke is lying a lot or a little, Tickled has more surface-level problems. Farrier and Reeve have stumbled into a fantastic story, but at times, they don’t know what to do with it. At one point, in an effort to contextualize the story, Farrier goes to meet a tickle fetishist in Miami — one completely unconnected to Jane O’Brien Media. When the man agrees to tickle his partner consensually on camera, Farrier and Reeve slow the footage down and overlay it with a heavy-metal soundtrack — an apparent (and bizarre) effort to portray the fetish as inherently deranged.
What makes Tickled so confounding is exactly what makes it worth watching: the entire thing is a confluence of strange people with their own self-interests in mind, but it’s hard to extrapolate how much those interests influence the truth. Farrier and Reeve are likely trying to tell a true story, but with a lack of sources willing to talk, Tickled does often feel one-sided.
But that’s the thing about documentaries (especially by amateur filmmakers) that claim to have blown the lid off some underexplored story about weird people who would probably rather be left alone: they’re made for the filmmakers as much as for the viewers. At times in Tickled, it’s obvious that Farrier and Reeve think this story is their big break, and they’ll do almost anything not to squander it.
That’s the same feeling viewers got from 2010’s Catfish, in which filmmaker and doc subject Nev Schulman apparently falls in love with a girl online who later turns out to be a much older woman. After its release, the doc was accused of either being entirely fictional or exaggerated for entertainment. But even if it was all true, the filmmakers’ strange, almost pitying portrayal of the woman and her family, which included two mentally handicapped sons, was at least a little exploitative.
So did Farrier and Reeve leave things out of their documentary that could’ve portrayed their villains in a slightly more sympathetic light? Probably. Do David D’Amato and Kevin Clarke seem criminal, or at least suspicious, regardless? Definitely. Does David Farrier seem self-indulgent and convinced of his documentary’s overwhelming importance? Also yes. Do I still have a lot of lingering questions about Tickled that will probably never be answered? You can guess.
In the end, The Tickle King isn’t really interested in tying up any loose ends left undone by Tickled. It’s still just trying to prove that its subjects are unusual people, and that Tickled needed to exist. But given the widespread critical praise of the documentary last year, it seems the only people questioning Tickled’s existence, other than D’Amato and Clarke, might have been the filmmakers themselves.
Tickled will air again on March 1st, and is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now. The Tickle King is available on HBO Go and HBO Now.