‘Dark Tourist’ Host David Farrier On The Fine Line Between Exploitation And Exploration


The beauty of Netflix’s new travel show, Dark Tourist, hosted by David Farrier of Tickled fame, is that it harnesses much of the lurid energy of classic “Vice Guides To…” videos of the late aughts, getting at their root appeal, but without mimicking any of their trappings. A lot of that is due to Farrier himself, who’s the furthest thing from a tattooed edgelord.

Sure, it’s a slightly edgelord premise, with “dark” in the title and a stated promise to take us off the beaten path and find the lurid and macabre, but Farrier is a calming presence; honest, curious, and a bit wry. In short, a model of Kiwi reserve (if you’re unfamiliar with the national character of New Zealand, the easy shorthand for Americans is that New Zealand is Australia’s Canada). He’s the kind of guy who’ll meet Pablo Escobar’s lead hitman while wearing pink shorts with flamingos on them. Farrier’s natural New Zealandness makes Dark Tourist a little like Vice Guide meets Flight of the Conchords.

When the rubber hits the road, Farrier proves no less curious or ballsy than Shane Smith or Anthony Bourdain. Over the course of the show, he ends up swimming in a radioactive lake made from a nuclear explosion in Kazakhstan and gets injected with Ketamine in goofy totalitarian tinsel-state Turkmenistan. He’s not an entirely detached observer, an NPR-type host who treats his subjects like they’re in a human zoo. And he’s not above joining the party — he just does it without coming off breathless, credulous, sensational. There’s a particularly representative moment in the USA episode, as a tour guide holds two divining rods, crossing them to show that the ghost of Jeffrey Dahmer is present with them on the tour. Farrier turns to a companion and asks “this seems like bullshit, right?” and they leave. I guess the short answer to why I enjoy Dark Tourist is that it seems like the kind of travel show I’d make (if I was a little more careless about my personal safety).

Of course, with its thematic similarity to Vice and racy pitch, Tourist is practically begging for the same kinds of criticism. A recent Guardian review lumped it in with a larger trend that it branded “extreme travel,” which it called “sordid and shallow.” Though a closer read reveals that most of the criticism is aimed at other shows Dark Tourist had the misfortune to remind them of.

Travel is always a tricky balance. Any place with regular visitors is naturally going to create a market for locals to sell outsiders their own preconceived notions back to them. How harmful tourism is to a place depends largely not on whether tourists visit or not, but how respectful they are when they get there.

I got to pick Farrier’s brain about it this week by phone from New Zealand (after a few time-difference-related snafus), asking all the questions on my mind, from his philosophy of travel to where he got those sweet shorts.

How long did you spend shooting the show? And how many different places did you go?

It was shot over about seven months, I’d say. We just wrapped up shooting in February this year. And generally, each episode is three countries that are geographically close to each other. And we did eight episodes. Yeah. We traveled a lot. And we weirdly made our production base in New Zealand so we’d always do this weird trek back. This massive migration back to New Zealand.

That’s basically 15-hour flight from anywhere, right?

It’s a long way. I feel like half the year was spent on a plane.

Did you learn anything about plane travel during that time?

I mean, yeah. I learned how no matter how many times people are told, there will always be someone in the queue that won’t take their laptop out of their bag. And just finds that incredibly confusing. Like, really baffling. And I think it’s really important to say, “Hello,” to the person sitting next to you, just to establish that you’re not an asshole, and they’re not an asshole. And then you just get on with the trip. It’s not like you need to talk to them the whole way, but just say a polite hello and look them in the eye and then I think you’re all sorted.

Sure. Just a baseline.

Just a baseline. And then you get an indication of whether the person next to you is psychotic or nice or it gives you a little indication of how that next 15 hours is gonna go.

Explain the concept. I mean, the idea is that you’re going to non-traditional travel spots. How did you come up with the concept that would give you the freedom to do the things, to go to all the places that you wanted to go?

Yeah. I mean, it’s … Mark McNeill, he’s an EP [Executive Producer] on the show. And he’s been making really good television in New Zealand for years. And he had the idea a long time ago to make a travel show or a documentary series that’s based around this idea of dark tourism. And he saw Tickled and he came and brought the idea to me after that. And then I took it over to Netflix from there.

But Mark and I and Carthew Neal, who was a producer on Tickled, he came on board as well. And I think we all just, the idea of it I suppose was just grappling with, there was some interesting moral and ethical issues involved. Because generally the places we’re visiting are places associated with some sort of disaster or something awful. And then looking at the little tourist traps that have popped up around them.

You’ve got the people that are essentially exploiting these places. And then you’ve got the tourists that decide to spend their free time at these places. As opposed to a nice beach or a resort. And we all found that stuff really interesting. Plus, I think, all New Zealanders do travel a lot, just because we’re so far away and you kind of go crazy if you don’t. We’re all been fascinated by travel and yeah, the whole idea of dark tourism is nothing new at all, but we just thought it would be a really interesting thing to explore as a series.

When I saw it I was like, ‘Oh, this is what I wanted in a travel show.’ You’re going to weird, out of the way places that I wouldn’t necessarily go that I wanted to still see.

It was an interesting thing when we were researching this show because we didn’t want everywhere to be a huge downer. We just wanted to visit places that were exciting and new that you might, people might not have seen filmed in a beautiful way before.

Places like Turkmenistan. That’s not your traditional dark tourist spot. Although a lot of atrocious things are happening there. And we just wanted to go there because it’s sort of the new North Korea, in a way. It’s a new hermit kingdom. And places like that we wanted to explore as well. Dark tourism’s sort of the hook, but I think around that we pushed into some unusual places, as well as places associated with the macabre. We’re figuring out what we are and honed it down to, I think, a pretty efficient eight episodes.

There’s always that impulse to just look at a map and then you point at a weird place that you’ve never thought about or considered and go, “Hey, I wonder what it’s like there.”

Yeah, I mean, what we mainly found during our research was that a lot of places can seem incredibly interesting in a paragraph. But they don’t make for an interesting 40 minutes of viewing. We were looking for places that had a dark story behind it. That did have this tourism element. But also had good stories and characters around it.

When we went to Benin, the birthplace of Voodoo, it was super important that we had good characters there that could take us into that world and guide us through it. Just so we were being culturally sensitive as well. Martine, who was my Voodoo priestess in Benin, she was our eyes into that place. And everywhere we went, we tried to pair up with some locals who had really amazing insight into that place. Because my role as a host and documentary maker I suppose is just to go there and observe and give my take. But we didn’t want it to be just my take on things. We wanted it to be a local take as well.

You seem like you have a persona that makes for a good straight man.

Yeah, well, I think it’s kind of the New Zealand way. I think anyone who’s watched Flight of the Conchords probably has some indication of our sensibilities and sense of humor. And we just quietly clock things. We’re not particularly loud and opinionated. We just look and observe and go, “Oh, that’s interesting.”

I sort of skimmed over a piece in The Guardian the other day that was complaining that the show was exploitative. Or that it was somehow wrong to go to some of these places. And I was just curious, I mean, to me it seems like I don’t know how you do any tourism that isn’t exploitative in some way.

I think we expected to get some criticism making a show about dark tourism. Because, I mean the whole thing is pretty morally murky. And turning up to document that is, of course, gonna rub some people up the wrong way. But I think we were super sensitive in how we went into things and kind of went in with an open mind. And I think what we tried to do was even if we were in places where something awful had happened, always try and reflect the positives that people had taken out of things and the way they are approaching life. And I went into a death cult expecting to find these people worshiping Satan and very quickly discovered that it was a super positive relationship that they had to death. And probably much healthier than a lot of the West. And that’s what that episode focused on. I totally get some people reacting in a visceral way to seeing some of these things on screen but I would also say I’m super proud of the way we treated these places.

And part of the hook for me, as a New Zealander, when you make something for New Zealand TV, 10,000 people watch it, ’cause we’ve only got 4 million people and no one’s really watching TV in New Zealand at the moment anymore. Everyone’s on Netflix or HBO or whatever. Having this show go out so wide, it’s been kind of heartening just hearing from people in those places that we made those episodes. And the feedback’s been super positive. The only anger, if anything, it’s been like, “Why didn’t you come to this place as well?” Which is dope.

I mean, when you’re in a country and you’re selling a tour to outsiders. Aren’t you always selling outsiders’ conception of your place back to them in some way?

Yeah, absolutely you are. You just look at any postcard that you buy at any tourist spot and it’s a complete, almost sometimes comical representation of what that place is about. And very surface level. Yeah. I mean, any kind of tourism has its issues. The second we throw in tourism around some dark or murky or awful thing that’s happened, it’s like that but tenfold.

Were there any times while shooting this that you were legitimately scared for your safety?

I had a real issue personally with McKamey Manor. Because that’s that, it’s a haunt and it’s an extreme haunt in America and it shifts around from state to state. And it’s run by one guy, Russ McKamey. And essentially you turn up and you pay in dog food and you pay to get tortured until you break. And the whole gimmick is that no one’s ever made it the whole way through. It’s elements of a horror house but then suddenly you’ll be hog-tied and dunked in ice cream, like a freezer full of ice water. Or you’ll be waterboarded or you’ll be touched. And I found that super, super difficult to deal with.

And the other place, Cyprus felt dangerous at one point. There’s a forbidden city there that’s been abandoned. And you’re not even allowed to point a camera at it. And of course, that’s what we were doing. And we got taken in for questioning and we were all separated and our passports were taken off us. And that felt like not a particularly good situation to be in.

And Turkmenistan as well. We got in there because they were holding this weird Olympic event that no one knew about. And I went in as a sports journalist. They never let journalists in. But just reading about their human rights records beforehand and the journalists that have essentially disappeared in prison over there. And they’ve got a pretty bad track record with torture. That, just as a journalist, which is my background, that didn’t feel great to be in Turkmenistan.

And long term I think — it’s funny, I was going for a walk this morning and I felt like I had a real achy hip. And I’m like, “Oh, I haven’t had an achy hip before.” I’m only 35. And I was just thinking about the various atomic bombed places we’d spent quite a lot of time in. In the Polygon I stupidly got drunk and went swimming in a lake in Kazakhstan that had formed where an atomic bomb went off. And there’s this weird pressure when you’re being filmed for a show because you kind of end up doing stuff that you wouldn’t typically bother to do. Long term I am slightly concerned about some of that stuff, but at the same time I like to think I probably got more radiation traveling on flights for the show.

Was there anything else that you did that then afterwards you looked back and you realized you never would have done if the camera hadn’t been rolling?

Oh, a lot of it I probably wouldn’t have done. I was gonna say the stuff in Benin with Voodoo. And I converted to follow a god called Thron there. I don’t know whether I would have done that if I hadn’t been doing it for a documentary. Just because, just purely for the hassles I get back home. I’ve got quite a conservative Christian family and it would stress them out. But it was a really amazing experience and quite life-affirming. So I’m really glad I did. But mainly, yeah, mainly the stuff with radiation I probably wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for a documentary series. I just think I’d prefer to read about that stuff from afar as opposed to go there myself.

You said you have a conservative family. I actually don’t know much about your background prior to Tickled. What’s your story?

Oh, you know, I was, what was I doing? How do I sum this up? I grew up mostly in Whangarei, which is a pretty small city in the north of the North Island of New Zealand. And went to high school at a Christian school, it was a pretty conservative school. Then I ended up studying journalism for three years and stumbled into, I guess doing those quirky segments at the end of the news. Weird subcultures and people doing interesting things. I did that for about eight years. And that’s the route that I ended up stumbling on to Tickled through. Just looking into weird stories. And then, yeah, left the news environment to make Tickled and then from Tickled stumbled into this dark tourism thing.

When you guys picked a place, what was the process of deciding what you wanted to do and show there?

I mean, it started with just a hell of a lot of Googling and contacting friends around the world and just starting to see what strange tourism had cropped up around some various disasters around the world. And from there, yeah, from that original research then we expanded and got some fixers in various places around the world. Because you can only ascertain certain things if you’re on the ground.

There are amazing photo essays online about various abandoned buildings that had turned into urban explorer kind of hotspots and just these amazing communities there. But we found out pretty quickly, oh, they’ve been cleared up a year ago. Pretty quickly a lot of your options close and you find new ones.

Do you have a second season in the works yet?

We’ve got a huge Google Doc of places we want to go. I mean, just even as we traveled we found new places. As we were on the ground and talking to people who knew things to do. And since the show’s come out, my DMs are just crashing because there have been so many people just writing in with, “Come here, do this. I wanna show you this thing.” Which is really neat. But I guess it just comes down to how this goes, really. It’s all down to that big Netflix algorithm, isn’t it?

Was there anywhere that maybe seemed like a bigger surprise than anywhere else?

I think probably, the place that felt the most rich, was based around narco-tourism. Because we spent most of that episode with Popeye, who was Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man. And he was great and enticing and he was what the show was all about because he’s just so morally bankrupt. And the idea of, just seeing people fanboy out over him that had traveled from around the world was just super surreal. When you consider what he’d done. He’s actually back in prison now, since we were filming with him.

Oh! What happened?

That’s a really good question. I just read the headline the other day, back in prison. What’s he done? I’ll have to Google that. [“arrested as part of an extortion investigation,” back in May].

Okay, we’ll find out.

But yeah, Popeye’s back in prison. But there were so many people involved with Pablo Escobar that are still there… And just even the cop that was involved in that era. Colombia, which was just… the people there were so awesome and so fun to work with. And that place was just, there was so much more material there than we could ever have imagined.

In that same episode, in the border crossing segment it seemed like they had, I don’t remember how much you said you paid for the tour. But it seemed like they had 50 extras and actors working with you. How were they making a profit on that?

It was pretty intense. They also run this holiday park and resort. They have swimming pools and a hotel and little cabins and all sorts of typical holiday-going stuff. And then this is something they run on the side. I mean, I imagine they probably put on a few extra fireworks because we were there filming. I think they probably brought at least a couple of extra crew in.

But I talked to people that had done that tour before and we took the tamer version. We did the daytime one. But there’s one you can do at night which is apparently even more impressive. And I think they just find it fun. They’re all just mates. They all just come in and it’s like a bit of casual role-playing for them. And each person, because it’s done over eight hours, an actor just needs to come in for 20 minutes at a certain time. So as long as they’re there at that time it’s 20 minutes of work and they’re done.

But yeah, that was pretty fascinating, the way that was run. Because you can look at it and the people running it say it’s a deterrent and it’s an educator. But then inevitably some people are doing it for entertainment as well, and a fun time. And maybe for all I know it was an office team-building exercise or something. Which is in pretty questionable taste, especially when you consider the political climate in the States at the moment. That’s dark tourism all right.

I mean, it seems like there’s such a fine line between wanting to go somewhere and know about somebody’s experience and then mocking it somehow.

Yeah, I think it’s all about people’s perceptions and why they take part in something. I mean, there’s a couple of people that have written to me super offended that I laughed while I was on the ground with a gun pointed at my head. And probably like many cowards, I laugh when I’m nervous. And put out. That wasn’t a laugh where I was having a good time. It’s all, honestly, all this stuff is just about perception and what your intent is. Does that make sense, do you–

Yeah, it does. The reaction seems like it’s based on… it gets called exploitative if you giggle somehow, but if you have a serious face on then it’s okay.

Yeah, 100%. And it’s all, it’s people making judgements on that and how you’re feeling and why people are doing it. But I guess that’s part of why we made the show, is to think about that stuff and get people’s reactions from it. I mean, if people are talking about it and considering these things I think that’s a really good thing.

If someone wanted to come and do a dark tourist segment in New Zealand or near where you live now, or where you grew up, what kind of things you think you would take them to do?

We’re pretty low on places here. But we had a pretty devastating, well, incredibly devastating earthquake in Christchurch. Which is in the South Island. And I think there’s still ruins and rubble. And I think plenty of dark tourists would have gone to Christchurch just to have a look at the damage done. I mean, that was seven years ago now. But there’s still, you can still see the effects of it. I think Christchurch would probably be the place.

Going back to what qualifies as exploitative or whatever according to some people, it seems like if you go to Sarajevo and you stand in the footsteps on the place where the assassin shot the Archduke, that’s standard right? But then if you go to Las Vegas and you wanna see where Tupac got shot that’s not okay. What is the time equation? How much time makes it okay, I guess?

I think it’s a combination of time, the political nature of the event plays into it in a massive way and if the politics of that are still playing out. I think that creates a huge thing in people’s minds as to whether it’s offensive or not. And I think just the way people treat that certain situation. And, no, also I think it’s where it sits in pop culture. I mean, pop culture normalizes everything.

Narco tourism feels much more accepted there because with films like Blow and such it’s much more normalized. And the same with Jeffrey Dahmer serial killer tours and stuff. Because that stuff is such a part of pop culture, people find it much less offensive. Whereas I think the stuff that exists more in the news sense and it’s just things that people have seen in headlines and it’s much more real for people in that way, I think that’s where it becomes much more offensive when someone just stands there and takes a selfie in front of it, you know?

Sure. So you have any Tickled updates? I know the guy, the main guy [David D’Amato] died, right?

He had a heart attack, yes. I mean, the Tickled updates, that world’s quieted down. I mean, once every couple of weeks I’ll hear from someone who has watched it and still has letters from Terry Tickle and will send those through to me. For some reason, they’ve kept them. I’m still getting updates from people and people’s experiences having David D’Amato as a high school counselor and that kind of thing.

Technically the defamation lawsuits aren’t dead because there’s this weird thing in New York where if you die, the estate can carry on the defamation suit, so technically those are still live. I think against Dylan [Reeve, Tickled‘s co-director] and myself. And it depends what the estate wants to do with them. But to be honest with you we’ve got a really wonderful lawyer in New York who keeps an eye on that stuff. And I’ve just had to step back and forget about it, us. It would just never stop, you know?

There’s another guy, Louis Paluzzo, who’s taken over. He’s got all the hard drives and he’s got all the tickling videos. So in a weird way, Jane O’Brien Media kind of still is operating. They’re still on Facebook and stuff. That’s strangely a world that I don’t think is ever gonna die. But I’ve just mentally had to… I mean, there’s other stories I wanna tell and I don’t wanna be still chasing tickling when I’m 75, you know?

Yeah. I mean, I remember when that came out and to me it felt really relevant to a lot of the things that were happening online. And just the way personal information was being used online. But it seemed like people treated it as if it was this exotic, weird thing. Which it was, but…

Yeah, that was in the middle of all that Gawker stuff that was going on. And yeah, I think people, I think a lot of people probably still look to that and thought it was a quirky tickling film. And maybe didn’t even watch it. Whereas the tickling was just like the thing. But it wasn’t about tickling at all. It was about online bullying and how if you’ve got a shit ton of money and lawyers you can sort of be invincible, really.

I think maybe if I could have my time again, I wouldn’t have called it Tickled. Because I think a lot of people saw that and thought, “I don’t wanna watch 90 minutes of tickling.” Which is a really valid thing if you’re not into tickling. But yeah, I think it spoke certainly to the time that we were living in then and still are now.

It seemed really relevant to anybody getting doxxed.

Oh, God, I mean, and you know today with this awful conspiracy theory culture that’s talking about crisis actors and all that stuff. It’s just gotten to a point you never could have imagined 10 years ago. And yeah, Tickled was an example of one very passionate person being involved in that.

When he had died I initially wondered if he’d faked it. Because it seemed, all the details were really sketchy and I wondered if he’d somehow orchestrated it all.

Oh, believe me, we all absolutely thought he had absconded and set that up. Because if anyone was gonna do that it would be him, right? But out of respect to someone who’d passed away and his members of his family that were alive, we looked into that and he definitely did pass away. But yeah. Of course. That’s what was immediately on our minds. We thought “Of course he’s not dead, he’s just gonna pop up under a new persona in five years time and then we’ll do Tickled 2.” It was very, very strange.