I’ve just returned from Sundance Film Festival and whilst I have a thousand snippets of stories to tell, there is one I need to put into words right now, before time makes me forget just how surreal and absurd the whole evening was. Surreal and absurd – two words that may be repeated a lot in the following text.
On Thursday 28 January, I headed out to Park City Library to catch a screening of New Zealand documentary, Tickled. When I first read the synopsis for the film, it didn’t immediately catch my attention. But then a few days later, it kept popping into my brain. It sounded odd, and I liked that.
“After stumbling upon a bizarre “competitive endurance tickling” video online, wherein young men are paid to be tied up and tickled, reporter David Farrier reaches out to request a story from the company. But the reply he receives is shocking—the sender mocks Farrier’s sexual orientation and threatens extreme legal action should he dig any deeper. So, like any good journalist confronted by a bully, he does just the opposite: he travels to the hidden tickling facilities in Los Angeles and uncovers a vast empire, known for harassing and harming the lives of those who protest their involvement in these films. The more he investigates, the stranger it gets, discovering secret identities and criminal activity.
Discovering the truth becomes Farrier’s obsession, despite increasingly sinister threats and warnings. With humor and determination, Farrier and co-director Dylan Reeve summon up every resource available to get to the bottom of this tickling worm hole.” – Sundance
By that point in the festival, I had lost my voice, I was halfway through a pharyngitis and a sinusitis and I had a fever. I was possibly high on exhaustion and medication but I figured it might just help reach the level of bonkers that this film was promising. I got into the theatre, and took a seat by an aisle – in case I needed an emergency coughing fit exit strategy. A few minutes later, a man asked for the seat next to mine. I didn’t pay much attention. He sat down. I asked if he could watch my things whilst I went to the bathroom. He said: “oh yes, I’ll watch those for you.” I was next in line in the restrooms. A cubicle door opened. Clea DuVall came out. I went in and took a second to acknowledge that fact. That evening was already ridiculous.
As I went back to my seat, I found my neighbour rather agitated. He was chatting to various people around us. I didn’t really want to eavesdrop but he was being quite loud. He was obviously quite upset about something. He had a clipboard and an A4 notebook. He was talking about a film and how the filmmaker wouldn’t let him watch it. I assumed he was some kind of journalist. As David Courier came on stage to introduce the film and co-director David Farrier, someone in the seat in front of us asked my neighbour if he could ever watch the film without being angry. “No. I don’t think so”, he responded.
David Farrier introduced the film. The lights went out. The film started. What followed on screen was a completely absurd tale of things getting abnormally grim, dark and sleazy for something that was “only meant to be about tickling”. What was happening in the seat next to mine during the film was an endless amount of furious note taking. Every single comment, every single witness appearing on screen, even some time stamps. Some huffing and puffing. Some cursing too. The pages kept turning and turning and turning, making an excruciating noise each time. He pushed my elbow from the armrest a bunch of times because his furious writing needed more space. I assumed he was hating the movie and I couldn’t understand why he was insisting on staying until the end. And more importantly, I couldn’t understand how he could hate that movie. That movie was BRILLIANT. What was wrong with him?! Eventually the film came to an end and as the credits started rolling, my neighbour packed his things and, standing up to leave, said to us all: “Tell him I said ‘hi’.” I had no idea what that meant. Everyone around me started going crazy. “This is the story of the festival!” said one person. I had no clue. “Do you know who he works for?”, I asked. Six pairs of eyes looked at me in disbelief: “THAT WAS THE GUY FROM THE MOVIE!”
Suddenly, my brain was starting to pick up the pace. Credits were still rolling. “That was one of the guys who turn up at the airport in the movie. I thought you guys were together!” Oh my god! It was. At some point in the film, after the director has been threatened with court, three guys turn up in New Zealand to have a chat with him. They are not pleasant people. One of them in particular. And that guy, was THE guy. The very same one that was sat next to me. Now, I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone because genuinely, you have to see it to believe it, but by the time you’ve finished watching it, you know those guys aren’t really the joking kind. They are terrifying. So here I was, coming to the realisation that I was sat next to this guy the whole time and my neighbours kept going. “You didn’t know?! I went to tell the staff!”. “Me too!” said another “They said they knew and he was being watched.” The girl behind me said: “I didn’t dare clap or laugh during this movie.” Wait, what? I had no idea who this guy was. I hysterically laughed throughout this movie at how pathetic and absurd all those idiots were, him included. What the actual hell? “Yeah we thought you knew him but then you started laughing. I was quite worried about you – that’s why I went to tell the staff.” Wow! Wait a second. That guy reached for his pocket a bunch of times. They have guns here! I totally could have died. (I probably couldn’t totally have died but by that point the combination of fever, adrenaline and medication made it a near death experience.)
Eventually, the lights went up. I turned around and saw police officers and dogs at the back of the venue. The whole film office had also somehow turned up. In the words of that kid in other wonderful NZ film Hunt for the Wilderpeople: “Shit got real!”
The Q&A started. The entire group around me had their hands in the air. But it wasn’t their time to shine. Finally, someone on the other side of the cinema asked if the director had shown the movie to anyone within it. “YES!” shouted everybody. “HE WAS RIGHT HERE.” I couldn’t quite read David Farrier at this stage. I think he was probably a little in shock. “HE SAYS HI!” To be honest, I’m not sure what I would do with this information myself. That guy lives to destroy others. I wouldn’t want him to officially say hi to me either, probably. The Q&A carried on, until David Farrier came back to the group. “How many notes did he take?” Someone said 12 pages. I was sat right there. He went through 3 quarters of that notebook. He wrote down everything. “Well, at least I’m glad you met someone from the film.” That was the only possible way that Q&A could end.
On the way out, I couldn’t help look over my shoulder. Once outside, I could see police cars. Someone said the guy had stayed in the parking lot after the film. I didn’t know whether that was true. I was hoping it wasn’t. I still looked behind me all the way to the bus stop. By the time I got home, I was wide-eyed. My housemates asked what was going on. I told the tale for the first time. Hundreds more would follow the next day. To this day I can’t help but think that amongst films about abortions, gun control, child brides in Iran and Afghanistan, and dictatorship, the one film that required the cops throughout the festival was the one that was “only meant to be about tickling” – how much more absurd can this get?
Tickled ended up being my favourite film of Sundance. It is excellent. Always believe in the stranger than fiction.