ARTS & CULTURE
06/21/2016 10:18 EDT | Updated 06/21/2016 10:18 EDT

Welcome To The Dark World Of Tickling

"When did anything bad ever come from tickling? It’s, like, the most innocent thing you can think of ... It shouldn’t be this sinister thing."

Tickled

When you hear the words, "competitive endurance tickling," you probably think two things. One: Why haven't I heard of this before? And two: What exactly does that mean?

Well, New Zealand journalist David Farrier had these same questions and they compelled him to create the bizarrely enveloping film "Tickled." The documentary follows Farrier as he happens across strange tickling videos on the web and falls down the requisite rabbit hole to find their source.

Ultimately, the search for these videos led Farrier to Jane O'Brien Media, a company that recruits for and produces tickling films. The films themselves vary only slightly -- the participants are always white males aged 18–24. The usual dance is that one individual is strapped down while one or more other individuals tickle him. There's never any nudity in the videos, but someone is almost always still left breathless.

Jane O'Brien Media reportedly pays the recruits large sums of money and flies them out from various locales. According to Farrier's sources, the company tells potential ticklers they are auditioning for reality TV shows or other media projects. There are even a few instances, according to Farrier, where the company allegedly indicated the tickling videos were for the military to test tickling as a torture device.

In an early attempt to find a few of these individuals who were recruited by Jane O'Brien Media, Farrier received this message on Facebook from the company.

Like any self-respecting journalist confronted with such a message, Farrier knew he had to dig deeper. "If they hadn’t sent that original reply to that Facebook post, if they just said, 'We’re busy today,' instead of, 'We don’t want to deal with homosexual journalists,' I would have probably not pursued it," Farrier told The Huffington Post.

The resulting documentary takes a lot of winding twists and turns, leaving viewers walking away with bewilderment, questioning not only the twisted world of tickling but the American legal system, too. For a film seemingly about something funny, it's not one you'll leave laughing.

Since the premiere of the film at Sundance, Farrier and his team have been under fire from David D'Amato, the alleged mastermind behind the quasi-homoerotic tickling videos created by the company Jane O'Brien Media, and a whole slew of lawyers defending him. Farrier has been slapped with defamation lawsuits, been harassed via email, and confronted at premieres. "Tickled" is proving to make a lot of people tense. 

We sat down with Farrier at The Ludlow Hotel to discuss what's happened since the film's completion and what exactly drove him to talk tickling.

What’s been happening since the film was made?

Everything went fairly quiet after we completed filming. It wasn’t until Sundance, back in January, where I guess things kicked off again.

Kevin, who is in the film, is one of the representatives of Jane O’Brien Media. He was at Sundance and taking notes, which was a strange experience for people who were immediately around him, because they’re watching him on screen and he’s a character in the film and then he’s next to them at Sundance. [Editor's Note: A person who sat next to Kevin during the screening wrote an account of this experience, which Farrier notes is "a fun read."]

At True/False in Missouri was probably the next festival where Marko and Kevin were both there -- they were the two gentlemen that came to Auckland from New York in the film [they both represent Jane O'Brien]. That was the festival where I was handed two lawsuits. I got served by a fan. But those two suits have been dismissed. There were two defamation suits which I can’t talk on too much, A, Because I usually ... if I talk about them too much, it just goes on too long. B, you can find them online. They’re all available.

They’re both for defamation. They were both dismissed because of jurisdictional issues. Recently, another character in the film -- who spoke toward the end of the film in a phone conversation -- is being sued by ... you can probably guess as well. Those are the main things that have happened.     

What was your end goal with this film? There are so many instances throughout the film where you are questioning whether or not you should continue. That’s a lot to handle. In your dream scenario, what would happen now?

A few different things would happen, slightly unrelated. On the simplest level, I’d hope that people will think twice. When they Google “competitive endurance tickling,” now they won’t just find this tickling contest, they’ll find a film about it and maybe think this isn’t such a great idea. 

It seems to me to be illegal or very questionable. A lot of these competitors are told very specifically to come in on tourist visas and that is sometimes used in some of the emails I’ve seen to participants as a threat. So, if they’re in LA, and they say they don’t want to take part in the competition or they annoy Jane [the supposed head of Jane O'Brien Media], then suddenly that threat will come back. It’s their backup. "You’re here on a tourist visa." It’s used as a technique for manipulation.

You see it in the film. I am confronted by that at one point. The very first thing I’m told [at the airport] is "you’re here on a tourist visa." Because that’s what they’re used to saying to people, I think. I was like, "No, I’m here on a journalism visa." Then there’s issues of, you know, sending emails when you’re pretending to be a lawyer when they’re not a practicing lawyer. That sort of thing. 

And the online harassment perspective. They’re doxxing people, essentially. [Editor's note: As is discussed in the film, Jane O'Brien Media allegedly put together websites for some of the individuals who participated in tickling videos that contained their full name, address, photos, videos, etc. This was usually done after the individual had expressed that they did not want to continue making tickling videos.] They’re putting out their personal information. I would like that to come to an end.

When I was making the film, I reached out to the original FBI agent who was dealing with this back in the day and just never heard back. It’s my hope that, by putting the film out, someone watches it and is like, what’s happening here is wrong, this is what we can do to stop it. At the moment, we’re dealing with an individual who seems unstoppable and is just sheltering themselves with money, which a lot of people do. So, my intent has sort of changed. I just hope someone will help and fix it.

"Tickled"

You reached out to the men in the tickling videos and, of those who have answered and you’ve spoken to, what do they think of all of this?

The feeling for most of them? Some of them walked away and had a good experience. So they’ll go and be tickled, get their money, and walk away. Some of them, their videos go online, but under stage names. They don’t care. That’s fine. I talked to them and they don’t mind. Then you have this core group. Of the 300 domain names we found, there are quite a few that pointed to these websites [as] setups to name and shame. People don’t want to take action because they’re scared it will start things again, and because they don’t have money. Also, where do you start? A lot of these people, all they have is Jane and Debbie [Kuhn; another supposed employee at Jane O'Brien Media]. They’re not dealing with any real people, so they don’t know where to begin. And they don’t have any money. I think that’s why this has gone on for so long, because the people who have been drawn into this world don’t have money. And that’s why they’re drawn into it in the first place.

Right, and the 18–24 year old age group they’re targeting ... You can’t get a more vulnerable group than that.

Completely. A lot of them are sporty-jocky. They’re not doctors. That’s the type of person attracted to this. They’re aspiring models. They really want to get to LA because that’s where they can make it and break it. Part of the reason they’re excited to go is because Marko is touted on there as being a world-renowned photographer. They get portfolio shots with them. I want someone who has skill in this area to see this and think, what is being done legally that can be chased? There’s some very murky territory in there.

I can imagine there’s a line here -- as a filmmaker wanting to get the film out and a journalist looking for the story, but also you don’t want to upset the lives of these people any more than they already have been. 

Totally. But we had to get the story out and tell what actually happened. It wouldn’t be effective if I was narrating and saying, "Websites were made up." You need to hear from someone this happened to. T.J. [Grezner] is in the film and we found T.J.’s website. The tickling videos, his real name, his address, his email. He was very well-spoken. He summed up a lot of the experiences people had because he had been a couple of times and he had these strange experiences and heard these strange stories, and he relayed that to us.

In so many of the things I’ve read about coverage of this movie, no one is mentioning the homophobic aspect of all of this. That’s a major facet of what’s happening here.

Completely. There is. Even what happened to me at the beginning of the film. It set everything in motion.

That’s the thing. Here are these 18- to 24-year-old men who are petrified these videos are going to get out. And they’re tickling videos! It makes you think: “What’s so bad about that?” But even though they’re clothed, they’re strapped down and it’s all men. There’s something sexually suggestive about that.

Right, and these are straight guys from communities where that’s a bad thing. It’s used as a weapon against them. And it shouldn’t [be]. Being called gay shouldn’t be an insult, even if you’re not gay. But in certain parts of society, it is an insult. And Jane O’Brien Media knows that and plays off it. Which is this whole thing. Yeah. It’s crazy, right? If society had itself sorted out, that wouldn’t be a problem -- being called gay. People wouldn’t be insulted. People wouldn’t care. But they do care because, in some places, it’s still frowned upon. You’d think we’ve moved on.

"Tickled"

Of the individuals you did speak to, do you have a percentage, or range, of guys who did the tickling videos and had bad experiences? Or said, “I really wish I hadn’t done this”?

It’s such a contested thing; I can’t give exact numbers, but I’ve got a spreadsheet of about a hundred names in a Google doc. In the list, there were, like, 10 people who had sort of a neutral experience. Everyone else either didn’t want to talk about it or indicated that something had happened that they weren’t happy [about]. Then there were more specific people that went into detail about what happened.

Even after the film was made, I got in touch with a guy who had found all his videos put up on gay porn sites. And that’s something that’s not even in the movie. The movies we found were on YouTube and Vimeo and the sort. So, it even went a step further for him. He emailed me after this film and asked me, "How can I help? How can we make this stop? This is what’s happening, these are the threats I’m getting." So, that was someone who was very outspoken about it, but there’s no way he would go on camera about it because he’s still in the middle of it. He just wanted advice on how to potentially stop it. Most of the people we met just didn’t want to talk about it.

Which makes sense. And the videos on the porn site, were those of naked men or ... ?

No. Never. And that’s the thing. Jane O’Brien Media is savvy to the fact that it has to be ... it’s not a sexual thing. Always clothed, not even shirt off. Shirt, shorts, normal. That never changes.

Do we know what the intent is for these videos?

It changes. Right now, it’s for a reality TV show. It’s either for a reality TV show, an audition for some kind of project, or, according to people like T.J. and someone else we spoke to, they said they were investigating some sort of torture tactic of some kind for the military.

It’s mostly touted as a reality TV project because even in the name -- "competitive endurance tickling" -- it sounds like a fun sport. Like ultimate frisbee or something. People are like, OK, I’ll just go to LA and tickle, it’ll be fun. Because when did anything bad ever come from tickling? It’s, like, the most innocent thing you can think of. That’s why it’s OK to tickle little kids because it’s the most innocent thing. It shouldn’t be this sinister thing.

How did everyone find this site -- Jane O’Brien Media?

A lot of the people found it through Facebook ads. I found it because a friend sent me an email about this crazy thing. Then after I found it, I noticed Facebook ads popping up in my timeline, asking “Are you ticklish?” People had also been told by friends about this thing they did -- so [they were] referred on by a friend.

Did you expect this story to be this big?

No, it’s surreal. It’s stressful, because now I’m on social media and I’m getting messages on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat DMs. All these different mediums. It’s not like I’m getting neat emails. It’s quite stressful. I’m trying to keep ahold of things. You don’t know who’s important to talk to later, you don’t know who’s not important to talk to. I love social media, but I love it a little less now. I’m a little OCD and I like to be able to respond to everyone and I can’t do that right now, so I feel bad that I can’t do that.

So, what’s next? 

I’ve got a lot of other ideas for documentaries, but at the moment, this is a lot more overwhelming than I thought it would be. Just the sheer volume of new information that’s coming out. You know, what do I do with that?

And I’m still dealing with the ongoing issues with the litigation side of things as well. Keeping up with our lawyer and what they’re doing. Just very busy with "Tickled," talking about it, getting it out there, because I’m hoping that the more people that see it, the more likely that something will happen with it. I mean, documentaries don’t make you a lot of money. I want people to see it because the more people that do, the more likely there’s a chance that someone will hit the jackpot and say, "This is what we can do to stop this happening." That’s my hope.

[Editor's Note: A day after our interview with Farrier, D'Amato showed up to the LA premiere. As per Farrier's Facebook, D'Amato had this to say:

We reached out to Farrier after the run-in and he said, via email: "All I can say really is that we stand by the film. It's a story about online bullying and harassment -- and this film is something both Dylan [Reeve] and I saw as a way to stop it. Of course there is going to be pushback from the people involved."]

This interview has been condensed for clarity. "Tickled" opened in select theaters on June 16.

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