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9.26.2016

Tickled 9/22

*Spoiler alert*  I will discuss this entire documentary in this reflection!!

This extremely well researched and tenacious documentary created by New Zealand filmmakers David Farrier and Dylan Reeve will be in the running for an Oscar.  Although initially an effort to document the relatively unknown phenomenon of competitive endurance tickling, it evolves into a film that discusses issues of internet bullying, libel, and (particularly with individuals with legal cachet, money and clout), our justice system's (in)ability to reign in abusive behavior.

Upon receiving an inordinately legally threatening response to an inquiry into "Jane O'Brien Media", an online company that promises thousands of dollars to men who volunteer to be video taped for endurance tickling sessions, Farrier's driven to investigate further.  He correctly suspects that "Jane O'Brien is just a front; at one point three men from the company visit him in New Zealand with concern about the spin that the documentary would put on the company.  In the face of repeated legal threats, Farrier attempts to document one of their tickling conventions in US but isn't permitted into the building.

Farrier interviews a man in Florida who is also involved in endurance tickling, but much more openly.  The process involves hiring men, strapping them down, then tickling & video taping them.  The man openly admits that this is a fetish for him, that it's a kind of mild form of S&M, and that through the sale of his tickling videos, he's able to support himself.

Intrigued by O'Brien Media's secrecy, Farrier eventually finds a former participant who agrees to an interview.  After the tickling session (he'd signed on in order to get some easy money), the man discovers the tickling video on YouTube with his name attached and requested that YouTube remove it.  O'Brien Media reacted to this removal by posting dozens more videos of him on Vimeo and other places online, destroying his online reputation.  He cited one specific incident where he was the first pick as the running back for a college football team but was turned down as the coach was wary of associated the team with the tickling video.

Farrier discovers another organization from over a decade earlier with the same pattern of paying young men for tickling sessions and a backlash of abuse when they backed out.  The recruiter for the tickling sessions shows Farrier the dozens of threatening letters he received when he told the organizer that he didn't want recruit for the the tickling sessions anymore.  Two journalists documented the perpetrator of this 'tickling ring', David D'Amato, an elementary school principal with who's father was the partner in a law firm.  D'Amato was prosecuted, but rather softly (probably due to his legal ties), serving several months in a halfway house.

Presuming (correctly) that it's the same D'Amato behind O'Brien Media, Farrier pines for an interview, camping outside of his apartment for several days, and then tracking him down outside Starbucks.  After the videotaped interview, in which D'Amato refuses to say anything significant, Farrier says that all of the legal threats ended.  Through some savvy online sleuthing, he discovers personal documents D'Amato mistakenly posted, which show that he's the recipient of a weighty amount of trust fund money, presumably explaining how he can afford to pay the men for the tickling sessions.  As the behavior is all consensual, it's below the legal radar, and it appears that D'Amato's immune to prosecution.

The documentary unfolds with the researcher knowing as little about what he's about to uncover as the viewer.  It's edited well, and this unfolding gives the documentary an element of suspense.  And kudos to these two for pursuing this topic in the face of the legal threats.  It's a testament to the power of aggressive journalism--who else would have covered this guy who's been hurting men's reputations since the 90s!

This artistic unfolding makes this documentary Oscar worthy; in it's suspenseful unveiling, the issues discussed become more weighty; going from simply exploring a bizarre fetish to asking important questions what constitutes online abuse, and how effectively does out legal system protect us from the Wild West of the Internet?

In a bizarre turn of event, D'Amato actually turned up to the screening of Tickled in L.A.  Clearly, he's pissed at the negative coverage he's received.  The documentary ends with the pressing questions of whether the documentary aid to convict him--will he ever be brought to justice for the chronic ways in which he's threatened, harassed, impeded people's lives?  D'Amato himself, however, sees himself as the victim in this situation, as he's suing several people associated with the tickling videos.

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