David Farrier's Dark Tourist is... pretty damn dark

by Diana Wichtel / 29 July, 2018
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In Dark Tourist, David Farrier takes the holidays-from-hell genre to disconcerting new depths.

First of all, good on him. David Farrier, the man who once interviewed Colin Craig in a sauna, somehow convinced Netflix to let him wander the world, Louis Theroux-style, seeking out upsetting travel locations for our entertainment. Farrier has form when it comes to an attraction to the less-travelled byways of human experience. His 2016 movie, Tickled, dived into the wacky and surprisingly litigious world of competitive endurance tickling, of all things.

Dark Tourist is designed to scratch a different itch – the desire to commune with darkness. That’s a bit sick, some say. This series shows it can be. But humans are curious creatures, hardwired to seek information about the infinite variety of wretchedness that flesh is heir to. As Farrier puts it, “This trip contains more than 80% death.”

Things kick off with a “narco fantasy tour” in Colombia, where late drug lord Pablo Escobar is a tourist magnet. Farrier meets Popeye, a former Escobar hitman who killed 250 people, including his own girlfriend. Popeye and his Kiwi visitor get on like a drug den on fire, causing Farrier’s moral compass to spin out of control. “The trouble is you’re so likeable,” wails Farrier, “but you’re talking about cutting up bodies. It’s not funny. It’s f---ed up.”

Farrier is careful to present himself with an expectations-deflating calling card – “I’m a journalist from New Zealand!” – and a wardrobe that stars an unthreatening pair of pink flamingo shorts. Who would arrest this harmless Kiwi weirdo? In the episodes I’ve seen, several people try. To his credit, Farrier looks genuinely scared on occasion. He takes part in a re-creation of an illegal border crossing from Mexico to the US that involves a lot of highly realistic-looking manhandling. When threatened by armed authority, he cravenly sells out his “commander”. “I panicked,” he explains.

There’s fun to be had watching his facial expressions cycle through various modes of discomfort, from mild gastric distress to an impressive impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Farrier somehow agrees to be corralled on a tour bus in the area around Fukushima, site of the 2011 post-earthquake nuclear power plant accident. The tourists become increasingly concerned as their Geiger counters bleep urgent warnings. “I think this is pretty serious. Do you?” says one disapproving tour member as Farrier cracks jokes with another. “We laugh to cover up our nerves,” quavers Farrier.

Most of his observations are fairly prosaic: “It’s a little unsettling!”; “It’s a little eerie!” There are some sentences you are unlikely to hear elsewhere: “It may be radioactive but it’s delicious,” he reports, of lunch in a hot zone.

All fun and games until it goes horribly wrong. In England, he visits Littledean Jail Museum, where unlikeable curator Andy has assembled a freak show of dodgy tat. Farrier sniffs a tie allegedly once owned by serial murderer Fred West, and that’s easily the most tasteful moment. Even the Ku Klux Klan exhibit, in which robed mannequins clutch golliwogs, is eclipsed by the Nazi room, where Farrier has doubts about Andy’s commitment to historical accuracy. “Michael Jackson in Nazi Germany – he’s clearly making some of it up.” There’s a lampshade supposedly made from human skin and some inexcusably vile concentration camp dioramas. “The lampshade is insane but it seems just as bad for Andy to acquire it and put it on display,” blurts Farrier. Not just as bad, surely. Our guide was clearly out of his depth. Mostly I like Dark Tourist and Farrier but if there’s no redeeming insight offered at a moment like this beyond, “I’ve decided it’s all about titillation”, then the decision to screen it was an ethical fail. As Farrier might say, it’s not funny. It’s f---ed up.

DARK TOURIST, Netflix.

Video: Netflix

This article was first published in the August 4, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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