Spotlight on online abuse
by David-Elijah Nahmod
At first glance HBO's new feature-length documentary Tickled might appear to be an amusing, homoerotic look at guys who like to be tickled. But the film turns out to be a disturbing true-life tale about online abuse run amok.
When David Farrier, an entertainment and light-news TV journalist in Auckland, New Zealand, first spots a YouTube video about "competitive endurance tickling," he envisions a fun, light-hearted story similar to his recent interview with New Zealand's "donkey lady." Instead he finds a lengthy trail of blackmail, harassment, libel, threats, and false identities.
Red flags are raised when Farrier contacts Jane O'Brien Media, the company that promotes "competitive tickling," and requests an interview. The stunning response from O'Brien "associate" Debbie Kuhn includes insulting references to Farrier's homosexuality and threats of legal action if Farrier continues his pursuit of a story.
With a camera in tow, Farrier and his co-director Dylan Reese fly to the US and interview a few of the models who appear in Jane O'Brien videos. Several young men speak of being coerced to appear in the videos for huge sums of money and lavish gifts. Some of the videos are filmed without the participants' knowledge.
When models decline to appear in more videos, they find themselves targeted for shocking levels of abuse: their videos are posted and reposted. Their real names and contact information are also posted. Families, schools and employers are contacted. Some are "outed" as gay, even if they're not. One young man speaks of losing jobs because of these incidents. In the most extreme case, one model's online identity is impersonated in threatening messages sent to the White House. The model is shocked when the Secret Service comes knocking on his door. Hundreds of former models are targeted for these kinds of abuses.
As Farrier and Reese follow the electronic trail, they discover that Jane O'Brien and Debbie Kuhn are both pseudonyms for David D'Amato, a wealthy, sexually repressed heir in Woodmere, NY, who appears to be spending his fortune producing the tickling videos for his own gratification. He spends even more money "punishing" those who choose not to participate in his fantasies. D'Amato may also have been Terri DiSisto, aka "Terri Tickle," a tickle video producer from the 1990s who vanished without a trace. The most stunning realization about D'Amato, who continues to deny the film's allegations, is that he was once a teacher.
The camera follows Farrier and Reese across the US, back to New Zealand and to the US again, as they piece the puzzle together. What emerges is a mesmerizing yet unsettling portrait of a broken system that allows such abuses to go on. Law enforcement, judges, and social media platforms continue to look the other way as D'Amato destroys one life after another. Tickled raises many issues: mental illness, a broken legal system, and an anything-goes internet where people are not held accountable for their actions. Hopefully Tickled will plant the seeds of change. Airing in rotation on HBO. The film can also be viewed On Demand and at HBO Go.