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Where once he was Tickled, New Zealand documentary-maker David Farrier has most recently devoted himself to visiting ghoulish sites of so-called ‘dark tourism’. Here, he talks about murky ethics, Kiwi sensibilities and the pressure to react the ‘right’ way. “There’s one point where I’ve got a gun to my head and I laugh, because I’m sort of nervous. “Some people will say to me that it was really inappropriate to laugh at that point … [But] that’s what happened. It’s uncomfortable laughter. We wanted to leave all that in.”

By Elizabeth Flux.

‘Dark Tourist’ documentary-maker David Farrier

David Farrier in a voodoo market in Africa.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Recently, a self-described priest and exorcist got in touch with David Farrier. “For your own good, I would like to inform you that you have entered into a pact with a demon,” Father Kelmat wrote to the journalist and documentary-maker, “by taking part in a decree of initiation voodoo.”

The concerned priest was likely referring to Farrier’s visit to the west African nation of Benin, where he underwent an initiation ceremony filled with animal sacrifice. Or perhaps not. Maybe his concern was Farrier’s earlier proximity to an exorcism in Mexico. Then again, Farrier was also standing nearby when a couple of Milwaukee tour guides tried to summon the spirit of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer – an experience the New Zealander found so distasteful he immediately cut the tour short.

Farrier tweeted out a screenshot of Father Kelmat’s message with his own prognosis: “So basically, I’m fucked.”

The last time I spoke to David Farrier was in 2016, when his documentary, Tickled, was screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival. It followed the bizarre rabbit hole he fell down as he tried to investigate the competitive tickling world – threatening letters, lawsuits, and eventually a shift into the meta as the film’s subjects began showing up to festival screenings to hurl abuse and try to get copies of the movie.

After its release, Tickled gained a cult following – screening at Sundance before being snapped up by Magnolia Pictures and having cinematic releases around the world. Farrier’s pace hasn’t slowed since.

“I was looking at a photo of myself on Facebook from before Tickled and I didn’t have any grey hair – I look quite stress free,” Farrier says. “Since then I feel like I’ve got a lot more grey hair going on.”

Before Tickled, Farrier had been working in a New Zealand newsroom for eight years, reporting short packages for the late news before becoming the entertainment reporter for the show Nightline. “[Tickled] let me sort of step back from that afterwards and just kind of look at what to do next,” he says. Instead of a break, though, he got an offer from Netflix to pitch a series on the back of the success of Tickled. Separately, a producer had approached Farrier with the concept for Dark Tourist. Beyond the need for sleep, the timing was perfect.

Much like Tickled or Farrier’s previous work exploring subcultures and fringe groups for short segments on New Zealand’s TV3, Dark Tourist centres around strange human behaviour. In it, Farrier travels the world to unusual destinations, many of them with dark pasts. It’s stressful, entertaining and weird, in turn.

“We aimed to make a documentary series that would look at dark tourism, which is the idea that some people don’t want to go to a nice resort or a nice beach; they want to go to the site of a tragedy or [see] something terrible – or just something a little bit unusual I suppose,” Farrier tells me. “We wanted to explore those places and explore some of the moral and ethical issues around the edges. Like should this place be somewhere where tourists or us should go and film?”

One such place is Aokigahara or, as it’s colloquially known, Japan’s “suicide forest”. It was a site of controversy earlier this year when YouTube star Logan Paul and a crew of friends decided to visit and make a video. They headed in with the express goal of finding a dead body, which they did. Paul’s cavalier attitude, the fact that, purely for clicks and shock value, he uploaded a video of a man who had committed suicide, and that he did the whole thing while wearing a goofy Toy Story hat, garnered a storm of criticism.

In Dark Tourist, Farrier also visits Aokigahara, but the contrast in his approach is stark. Though the Logan Paul situation blew up before the series was released, Farrier’s team had actually already filmed and edited the segment. “We knew it was a sensitive topic and a sensitive story, which is why we chose to go in with Japanese guides,” says Farrier. “We also went in with a woman who had changed her mind and she’d come out of there with a very different take on things – and I think a very life-affirming take. That’s the story that we wanted to tell.”

Though Farrier has seen success, he says that – volume-wise – the response to Dark Tourist has been a hundred-fold more. “You really do notice that Netflix has 120 million subscribers,” he says. “You just feel the volume of feedback; I’ve just never experienced [that].”

There’s another change I notice from our last interview. This time, our conversation is cobbled together from the moments in between – a WhatsApp phone call here, a Skype call there. The series has just dropped and time is limited. Things have got hectic surprisingly quickly.

Of course, all this attention means that not only has Farrier been flooded with positive comments and notes from people around the world suggesting he visit their town for future episodes, but also the scrutiny has been more intense. People have homed in on everything from his choice of shorts – pink – to his reactions, which are somehow simultaneously too muted, too flippant and too enthusiastic. Farrier doesn’t seem fazed by any of the criticism. “Even the people that don’t like it, they’ve generally been pretty constructive and not just, you know, angrily screaming at things,” he says. “They’ve had really well-reasoned ideas and thoughts.”

The series skates some fraught territory – it has to, by its very definition. By visiting certain places Farrier isn’t condoning them as a destination – the goal of the series is to question the motives of the people who choose to do things such as go on Manson Family themed tours, or voluntarily sign themselves up for torture, or spend vast sums on watching rocket launches up close.

“We wanted stories that were really morally questionable, and then we wanted some stories that were really visual – like Turkmenistan where you’ve got this $5 billion marble city,” says Farrier. “And then we wanted other ones that are just really fast paced and sort of madcap, like the border-crossing experience.”

The border-crossing experience Farrier references has been one of the most polarising moments of the series. It’s a tour that simulates what it is like for people trying to cross from Mexico into the United States. As part of the experience, Farrier’s group is “attacked” by gunmen and forced to hand over their belongings. With a gun pointed at his head, Farrier’s response is to laugh.

It’s a recurrent motif in the series. I ask him, half-joking, if he’s worried about the radiation he was exposed to across the eight episodes; about how his hand got cut on a mirror in Turkmenistan and was treated with stitches and ketamine; about his experiences in McKamey Manor, which was essentially just a sustained evening of physical and psychological torture. As he recounts these experiences, he laughs.

I ask about the border episode, and about laughter as a coping mechanism. “It’s pretty ethically murky why people are doing it and what people are getting out of it. There’s one point where I’ve got a gun to my head and I laugh, because I’m sort of nervous,” he says. There’s the laugh. “And don’t quite know how to… In that situation… I’ve never had a gun pointed at my head. I wasn’t expecting to be shot but it’s still… Having metal on the back of your head is an unusual feeling.” He pauses. “Some people will say to me that it was really inappropriate to laugh at that point … [But] that’s what happened. It’s uncomfortable laughter. We wanted to leave all that in.”

In television, as in life, there is a pressure to react the “right” way. To be sufficiently scared, respectful, reverent. But the problem is that there is no one way that people express emotion – and culturally it varies. In Dark Tourist, Farrier takes a lot of intense things in his stride. He laughs when nervous and is calm around difficult personalities. He seems unperturbed when presented with a mummified corpse, or while attending a festival where so many animals are sacrificed that blood is literally everywhere he steps.

In one episode, soon after the death of cult leader Charles Manson, Farrier has been granted an audience with Michael Channels – Manson’s erratic and grieving best friend. The meeting is uncomfortable and filled with conditions. As the conversation spirals, Channels attempts to lash out by telling Farrier he’s just trying to be Louis Theroux – a comparison Farrier has been facing his entire career.

“He openly says, ‘You’re just trying to be Louis, man’, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, man, that’s what everyone says,’ ” Farrier tells me. In this scene, and in many places throughout the series, the use of voiceover gives the audience insight into what Farrier is thinking, without placing him in a confrontational position with his interview subject. It fills in the gaps of what we can’t see for ourselves. He debates the ethics, the pros and cons of the things he is seeing. He admits when he is feeling uncomfortable. Sometimes what he is saying doesn’t line up with what we see because almost no matter what, in front of the camera, he looks calm.

We experience Farrier’s documentaries through his eyes. “I have always enjoyed seeing the way a documentary-maker can be involved in the story,” he says. “With Tickled I was part of that story very quickly because literally the people involved in the tickling world were suddenly suing me – so very organically I became a part of that world.” Dark Tourist is similar. We are experiencing situations as he is; he is an analogue for the viewer – we run into trouble, then, when his reactions don’t line up with ours.

I ask Farrier if the person we see on screen is the real him or more of a character. “You hear of people on TV being sort of heightened versions of themselves, but that’s pretty much just me. I don’t get overly excited about things,” he says. “I think maybe some people mistake my kind of deadpan nature with not being engaged with it – but I am. It’s just kind of the Kiwi way, I think, being a little bit more low-key.”

While he has made a career out of highlighting the strange and bizarre, Farrier says his job isn’t to judge or poke fun – he’s just genuinely interested. “I’m definitely not someone who likes just going to a beach for a week and reading a book – I get bored super easily. I’m definitely not a dark tourist but some of the things we ended up exploring I was interested in. But a lot of it is something I wouldn’t do if it wasn’t for the purposes of filming it,” he says. “I’m maybe 20 per cent dark tourist, 80 per cent just curious.

“I like places that have a story behind them. I’m not one of those people who just thrives on abandoned places but, where it’s got a current political situation around it or there’s certain issues that people are still trying to figure out, I really like those places because you’re going to meet characters that are emotionally tied to them.

“It’s using death and destruction as an excuse to visit places but then sort of finding the humanity around the edges and finding what makes people tick.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 22, 2018 as "Dark sides". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.