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A New York man says the makers of a documentary film screened in Utah about "competitive endurance tickling" defamed him by allegedly referring to him as "a criminal and a sexual deviant."
The suit, filed in federal court in Salt Lake City by David P. D'Amato, focuses on "Tickled," which had its world premiere Jan. 24 at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
The documentary started as a goofy story for the evening news about a competitive endurance tickling league, but it became "an act of journalistic courage" by looking at the pattern of online harassment against any participants who tried to quit, according to a review by Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean P. Means.
New Zealand TV reporter David Farrier and "Tickled" co-creator Dylan Reeve found a slew of tickling videos on the Internet and investigated one of the makers, Jane O'Brien Media, after their inquiries to the company allegedly were met with emails filled with gay slurs, Means wrote.
"It also brought down a firestorm of legal action and email taunting that borders on the sociopathic," Means said in his review, which gives "Tickled" 3.5 stars out of four.
The video that led Farrier to Jane O'Brien Media involved young men who were paid to be tied up and tickled, according to Magnolia Pictures, the film's distributor.
The suit names as defendants Farrier; Reeve; David W. Starr, who does business as Tickle Films; producer Carthew Neal; executive producer Justin Pemberton; and MPI Media Group, which does business as Maljack Productions Inc.
The suit seeks an unspecified amount of money in damages and an order stopping distribution of the film.
D'Amato claims in his lawsuit that "Tickled" falsely accuses him of extorting tickling models, having minors filmed while being tickled and committing drug-related crimes.
The allegedly false statements in the documentary include:
• Tickling models "will not talk to Farrier because they fear reprisals from David D'Amato." That statement falsely accuses D'Amato of extortion and making threats of bodily harm, according to the suit.
• D'Amato "had minors filmed being tickled." The suit alleges the statement falsely accuses D'Amato of abusing minors and of pedophilia.
• Starr shows letters disparaging him that are purportedly from Terri Tickle and, when asked why those letters were sent, says that "she probably was sitting in front of a computer, shooting cocaine," according to the suit.
"It is a matter of record that Terri Tickle is one of the online aliases of David D'Amato, and therefore, David W. Starr falsely accuses the plaintiff of being a cocaine addict and committing drug-related crimes," the suit says.
An Indiewire article says Farrier was served with the suit Sunday while he was at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Mo.
"We stand by the content of our film," Farrier said in a statement emailed Thursday to The Tribune. "Given the number of hollow legal threats we faced during the making of it, it's almost refreshing to see a real case being filed by real lawyers."
Reeve added that he is flattered by all the attention the film is getting.
The lawsuit says Farrier saw an online video about competitive tickling and tried to uncover the identities of the people in it. As his investigation progressed, Farrier decided to make a film about competitive tickling and eventually focused on Jane O'Brien Media, the suit says.
Then, in 2014, Farrier accused Jane O'Brien Media of not hiring gay employees, the suit says, even though many company employees are "outwardly gay."
D'Amato says in his suit that representatives of Jane O'Brien Media flew to New Zealand for an interview with Farrier to correct misunderstandings "and to basically explain that 'competitive tickling' is not sexual in nature, is nonhomophobic, contains no homosexual fetish content, that paid models are fully clothed, and that although bizarre, there was nothing deviant taking place."
D'Amato claims in the suit that he has no association with Jane O'Brien Media, yet Farrier said at the meeting that D'Amato was the person behind the company. Farrier also said "he was aware of D'Amato's past, that he [D'Amato] is a criminal and we are going to get him," the suit alleges.
The allegedly false statement about D'Amato being associated with Jane O'Brien Media is believed to be based on his prior contact with Starr, who appears in "Tickled," the suit says. At Starr's request, D'Amato posted advertisements on school servers in the late 1990s for tickling models, according to the suit.
The suit says D'Amato was convicted of a misdemeanor computer fraud-related crime in Massachusetts in 2001 but the conviction had no connection to "pornography, pedophilia, abuse of minors or sexually deviant actions."
The docket of U.S. District Court in Boston shows D'Amato pleaded guilty in 2001 to violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and was sentenced to six months' incarceration and a $5,000 fine.
According to a PR Newswire article, federal prosecutors said D'Amato, using the alter ego "Terri DeSisto," had launched email bombs which are a type of a denial-of-service attack on Suffolk University in Boston, Drexel University in Philadelphia, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and numerous individuals during a three-year period beginning in 1997. D'Amato characterized the email bombs, which caused the computer systems to crash, as "Internet weapons of mass destruction," the article says.
Magnolia Pictures bought the North American distribution rights for "Tickled" at Sundance, and HBO bought the U.S. TV rights. Magnolia has set a release date of June 24.