Athletic tickling conspiracy, a double kidnapping in North Korea, and animal rights courtroom drama at #wifilmfest

Previewing three documentaries off the beaten path at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival

In the last four months, the local and national phenomenon of the Netflix series Making a Murderer has fueled resounding interest in the procedural tales of the convicted and the victims in Fear of 13 and The Witness, respectively, at the Wisconsin Film Festival 2016. Distinguished documentarians have deservedly garnered their fair share of ticket sales as well; the two rush-only screenings of Albert Maysles’ final film, In Transit, which surveys passengers aboard the US’ longest and busiest passenger train, are plain evidence of that. Further, Werner Herzog’s idiosyncratic technological pontifications in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World can be heard Sat, Apr 16, at the Barrymore (with advance tickets still available) and at Sundance on Tues, Apr 19, with a panel discussion to follow (rush-only). But the most rewarding festival-going experiences may arise in the outlying, surprisingly true tales that dig deeper into niche subculture and uncanny subject matter in Tickled, The Lovers and the Despot, and Unlocking the Cage. At the time of publication, advance tickets were still available to all shows, pardon Sun morning’s 11:00 screening of The Lovers and the Despot at Cinematheque.

Tickled (Fri, Apr 15 at 9:00p [Barrymore]; and Sun, Apr 17 at 8:30p [Sundance 6])

Although the trending social media topic of “competitive endurance tickling” seems provocative enough to stimulate the curiosity of New Zealand TV journalist David Farrier, it’s only a fraction of the alarming picture that he and techie co-director Dylan Reeve piece together across their feature’s 90-minute running time. From homophobic insults of Farrier’s “deviancy” to violations of Reeve’s family privacy, Tickled unveils a shady global conspiracy web that disseminates from organizers Jane O’Brien Media and their attempts to silence the filmmakers’ inquiries into these distinctively “athletic” (or, fetishistic) events in Los Angeles. Sheri Linden of The Hollywood Reporter claims that “Farrier’s dry humor infuses the proceedings with a relaxed energy that somehow makes the underlying tension all the more effective.” If the rigorous investigative journalism of last year’s Best Picture-winner Spotlight was a revelation, Tickled should both leave the cinematically adventurous both tickled pink and unnerved.

The Lovers and the Despot (Sun, Apr 17 at 11:00a [Cinematheque]; and Tues, Apr 19 at 1:30p [Sundance 1])

Naturally, co-directors Ross Adam and Robert Cannan are fascinated with a pair of surreal Korean kidnappings involving the film industry, which are fully disclosed in their startling new film. In the mid-1970s, leading South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee is abducted in Hong Kong by spies under orders from none other than supreme leader Kim Jong-il. When filmmaker Shin Sang-ok goes searching for his ex-wife Eun-hee, he walks into a bizarre trap laid by the the loony dictator. Supposedly, Jong-il wished to transform the homogeneous landscape of his country’s movies, but his criticisms of it are comically uninformed and puzzling. What’s ultimately most affecting is Choi Eun-hee’s new first-hand testimony of the tortured couple’s five-year imprisonment and surveillance. The documentary seems to immediately validate the complexity of the Kims’ long-standing fascination with celebrity, which continues to this day under Jong-il’s son’s gluttonously infantile posturing and friendship with reality star/former basketball forward Dennis Rodman.

Unlocking the Cage (Sat, Apr 16 at 9:00p [Sundance 6]; and Sun, Apr 17 at 12:30p [Barrymore])

As a self-described “lazy vegan,” the premise of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s new documentary is automatically of interest on a personal level when it pertains to examining human ethics towards our fellow mammals. The two minds behind The War Room (1993) follow Nonhuman Rights Project founder and animal rights lawyer Steven Wise’s attempts to argue, in a court of law, that great apes and other cognitively-developed mammals are seen in society not as living beings but rather as expendable objects subject to experimentation. The plaintiffs in this particular case study are, suitably, two former showbiz chimpanzees. Throughout this unique look at the judicial system that goes all the way to the Supreme Court, Wise prepares to relocate the chimps to a haven in Florida. As Hegedus and Pennebaker dramatically frame both sides of the argument, potentially legitimate or preposterous, the metaphor of Unlocking the Cage takes precedent over its literal meaning.