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‘Tickled’ documentary draws controversy

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In "Tickled," a documentary to be shown on HBO, David Farrier, who directed the film with Dylan Reeve, researches the company behind "competitive, endurance tickling." Photo Credit: HBO

It was intriguing. A New Zealand television reporter named David Farrier had stumbled onto a website promoting something called “competitive endurance tickling.” Presented as an amateur sport, it looked like a cross between Greco-Roman wrestling and a slumber party pillow fight. The videos, Farrier thought, would make great television: Athletic young men circling each other with serious faces — until one gets the upper hand and reduces the other to helpless laughter.

What should have been a short news-of-the-weird segment turned out to be much bigger, and much darker, than Farrier expected. What he found became the basis for his debut documentary, “Tickled,” which premieres on HBO Monday at 10 p.m. Three years after Farrier first found those harmless-looking videos, he says, “I never expected the tickling story would last. I certainly wasn’t expecting to still be talking about it now.”

“Tickled” has taken on a life of its own since it screened at Sundance in January 2016. Directed by Farrier and Dylan Reeve, “Tickled” delves into a company called Jane O’Brien Media, run by an elusive woman who solicits private tickling videos from good-looking young men. In return, the men say they received cash — sometimes thousands of dollars — and gifts such as concert tickets. When they declined to make any more videos, however, the participants say they found themselves harassed and humiliated. In the film, one participant recalls how his videos and personal information were posted online.

The truly weird part — and here comes a major spoiler — is that, according to Farrier, the elusive woman is actually a man from Long Island named David P. D’Amato. In the film, Farrier confronts D’Amato outside a Starbucks in Garden City. “I don’t want to talk to you,” D’Amato says.

D’Amato issued a statement through his lawyer, Jonathan Messina of the Carle Place firm Leeds Brown Law, saying that he “vehemently denies the accusations contained within the film” and “is pursuing legal remedies.” The statement also pointed to a July 2016 episode of ABC’s “Nightline” in which a man named Louis Peluso claims to own Jane O’Brien Media and insists D’Amato has no connection to the company. In that episode, one individual who appeared in the documentary claims he was paid by the filmmakers.

Farrier acknowledges paying one subject for his services as a guide for the filmmakers, but he also says: “I stand by all the allegations made in the documentary.”

In 2001, D’Amato was convicted of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to federal prosecutors, he solicited tickling videos from teenagers and then, when they stopped co-operating, launched email attacks against them and their colleges. D’Amato pleaded guilty, was fined $5,000 and sentenced to six months in a halfway house. He also resigned as an assistant principal at West Hempstead High School.

When “Tickled” began playing at festivals last year, D’Amato took legal action, filing two defamation lawsuits against Farrier, one in Missouri and one in Utah, denying involvement with Jane O’Brien Media. (The lawsuits have since been voluntarily dismissed with a proviso that any subsequent lawsuits would be filed in New York.)

Representatives from Jane O’Brien Media began showing up at festival screenings of “Tickled,” according to Farrier, which he says made “Tickled” a tough sell to studios.

“We were revealing something that somebody kept so hidden,” Farrier says. “People were just afraid of what the reaction would be.”

So much has happened since “Tickled” first began playing in theaters (it was released last year by Magnolia Pictures) that Farrier and Reeve put together a 20-minute follow-up, “The Tickle King,” documenting the aftermath. It’s available through HBO’s digital and on-demand platforms.

(Additional screenings of “Tickled” this week include: Wednesday at 3:55 a.m. on HBO2; Thursday at 4 p.m. on HBO; Friday at 3 a.m. on HBO; Saturday at 4:30 p.m on HBO)

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