ENTERTAINMENT MOVIES

This controversial documentary says competitive tickling is a tale of wealth and power

When David Farrier first stumbled upon the largely secret world of competitive endurance tickling, it seemed like just another quirky story for him to cover as an entertainment and pop culture journalist for New Zealand television.

But the tone of his story changed after he took a closer look and found what he alleges is a tale of wealth, power and deception. Farrier’s investigation into that world with co-director Dylan Reeve is at the center of “Tickled,” a documentary that has led to threats of legal action against the filmmakers and a contentious confrontation when the film’s subjects showed up at a Los Angeles screening earlier this month.

“We thought it was an important film to make, which I know sounds ridiculous because it is about tickling, but we wanted to expose some things going on that didn’t seem to be right,” Farrier said of the documentary now playing in theaters. “Hopefully, the film will act as a warning and force some action to take place.”

See the most-read stories in Entertainment this hour »

“Tickled” follows Farrier and Reeve as they delve into the background of the Los Angeles-based company Jane O’Brien Media, which recruits attractive, physically fit young men to participate in tickling competitions. To the filmmakers, the activities appeared to be part of a fetish operation, but the organizers insist the tickling is a non-erotic endurance sport. 

Over the course of 18 months spent making the documentary, the filmmakers found participants who said they felt fooled about the purpose of the tickling videos. Some said they were told the videos were for private consumption, some said they thought the videos were test material for a reality show and some thought the video was for military research into potential torture tactics.  

One of the competitors interviewed in the film said he wasn’t told that he would be tied down and mounted by as many as three other men who doled out the tickling.

Many of the college-aged men participated in the Jane O’Brien tickling videos because they were in need of a quick buck – to the tune of thousands of dollars per shoot. When some of the men decided they no longer wanted to participate in the tickling videos, the film alleges that they were threatened with public release of the footage. One subject alleges that retaliatory emails questioning his character were sent to his place of employment. 

Taking issue with the documentary is Jane O’Brien Media video producer Kevin Clarke, who started a website to critique the film and is the company’s most visible representative. At Los Angeles’ Nuart Theatre last week, he confronted Reeve in the lobby and called the film “garbage.”

One point of contention is the filmmakers’ allegation that the person behind Jane O’Brien Media is actually David D’Amato, a man convicted of computer fraud and abuse in association with an alias once notable in the tickling community, Terri DiSisto. 

D’Amato could not be reached for comment through multiple calls to his lawyer. But in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Clarke said that there is no connection between the company and D’Amato, as the film alleges. He also denies the film’s conjecture that participants are duped into the tickling, citing company policy to explicitly inform subjects about exactly what to expect.

D’Amato did show up with Clarke to the June 17 screening of the film at the Nuart where Reeve was participating in an audience Q&A.

Video from the evening was posted to the Facebook pages of both the film and its distributor, Magnolia Pictures, in which Clarke and D’Amato can be seen and heard voicing discontent at Reeve.

“As we say in New York, Los Angeles TV, ‘You need to lawyer up,’” Clarke said in the video. “You need to get criminal counsel.”

------------

FOR THE RECORD

July 6, 10:10 a.m.: This article misattributed a comment made during an audience Q&A with a co-director of the documentary. It was David D’Amato, not Kevin Clarke, who told co-director Dylan Reeve, “As we say in New York, Los Angeles TV, ‘You need to lawyer up.’ You need to get criminal counsel.” Also, the article said Clarke had asked filmmakers to release unedited footage that he said would prove unethical behavior. He was referring to unedited audio recordings, not video.

------------

Indeed, D’Amato did file two lawsuits this year when the film began screening at festivals in the U.S. -- one in Summit County, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival, and the other in Boone County, Mo., during the True/False Film Festival. The suits, which alleged defamation and invasion of privacy, were both “voluntarily dismissed,” said the film’s lawyer Cameron Stracher. He said that when jurisdiction was called into question, both parties agreed that the cases should be withdrawn. (The lawsuits can still be refiled in a different jurisdiction.)

Clarke accuses Farrier and Reeve of unethical journalistic behavior, including using footage of someone who was promised would not be pictured.

“They are doing worse things than they claim D’Amato ever did,” he said. “Who is exploiting who here?”

Clarke added that a class action suit is “forthcoming.” Along with him, he said, will be plaintiffs including some of the competitors in the videos from the documentary – which the film pulled from YouTube – and two of his associates. He is asking for the filmmakers to release unedited footage that he said would prove the unethical behavior he alleges.


Early warnings

All of this began quite innocently. 

Farrier just wanted to do a story about the competition. In 2014, he had received a tip about New Zealand guys who were being paid generously and flown to Los Angeles every month to compete in tickling competitions. After stumbling on some of Jane O’Brien’s videos on social media, he reached out via the company’s Facebook page. The response was unsettling.

“I got a very bizarre homophobic reply and that made me think that there was more to this than what I thought before,” Farrier said.

The response said the company didn’t want any “association with a homosexual journalist.”

Reeve saw the response online and was instantly intrigued as well.

“It just wasn’t right [coming] from a company that’s making videos that are on the face of it homoerotic,” he said. “It didn’t add up. I thought it was weird and wanted to know more about who [Jane O’Brien Media] was.”

Both Farrier and Reeve independently began blogging about their findings, which prompted legal threats from the company and a barrage of antagonistic emails from people said to be representing the company. 

David Farrier, left, and Dylan Reeve are co-directors of "Tickled."
David Farrier, left, and Dylan Reeve are co-directors of "Tickled." (Magnolia Pictures)

It was then that the duo realized that blog posts would not be able to capture the complexities of the story unfolding before them. Within a month, filming on their documentary began. The goal was to figure out who Jane O’Brien was, why her workers were so angry and what, if anything, were they hiding.

Their first shot came when Clarke flew to New Zealand with a photographer and assistant on behalf of Jane O’Brien Media to meet with the directors and tell them, in person, that what they thought about the company was wrong, and not to move forward with the film.

“It was a big expense just to say ‘no comment’ and ‘you’re wrong,’” Farrier said.  “The message doesn't match the content,” he said. “You can’t say one thing and do another.”

So, they kept probing. Through in-depth research and interviews with journalists, the directors came across information about Terri DiSisto, a woman known in the tickling community in the late ’90s for her solicitation of videos. Her name came up in association with a federal case about a cyber attack at Drexel University in 1997, where hundreds of emails were sent to students and the college president requesting tickling videos. Though the original email appeared to be from a student, when approached, the young guy alleged that DiSisto was behind the emails, a move in retaliation once he stopped appearing in tickling videos. 

After investigating the student’s claims, the federal government claimed DiSisto was an online alias of D’Amato, a former assistant principal who received an inheritance after the death of his father, a prominent New York lawyer.

D’Amato was not charged in the Drexel incident due to an expired statute of limitations. But the investigation led to misdemeanor charges for other conduct; he pleaded guilty in July 2001 to spamming the computer systems of two other universities, Suffolk and James Madison. According to court documents, D’Amato claimed responsibility for all three attacks under the DiSisto alias during his plea. He was convicted of two counts of computer fraud and abuse and was fined $5,000 and sentenced to six months in a halfway house. 

The documentarians assert Jane O’Brien Media’s rise coincided with D’Amato’s release from the halfway house.

But Jane O’Brien’s Clarke said in his interview with The Times that he did not know D’Amato prior to watching the film at Sundance. After the screening, he contacted D’Amato’s lawyer; he wanted D’Amato to know what was being alleged in the film, he said. He said he has met D’Amato only three times.

As the film continues to screen in theaters nationwide, and Clarke and D’Amato persist with legal threats and defamation accusations, Reeve and Farrier said they are prepared for whatever legal fight may come their way. The directors say they took great pains to verify all of their information.

“We stand by our film,” Reeve said. “We were very cautious and careful to make sure everything we put in the film was something we were happy to put out there in the world with our names attached to it.”

MORE: 

Review by Justin Chang: ‘Tickled portrays a grim world of young men, giggles and profit

Egyptian and Lebanese film festivals censor 'I Say Dust' because of a same-sex kiss

The social justice conversations behind Jesse Williams' BET speech

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter: @TrevellAnderson.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
75°