DARK TOURIST Review: A Wide, Shallow World Of Weirdness
Disclaimer: Andrew directed David Farrier (in the role of "David Farrier") in Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws.
Kiwi journalist David Farrier surely had many options open to him after Tickled swept the doc scene. The project he chose: a Netflix series about the strange practice of “dark tourism” - visiting places known for being bizarre or dangerous. With a world tour in Farrier's rear-view mirror, the resultant series Dark Tourist is a mixed bag of success and disappointment, and - perhaps by accident - a fascinating look at the process of making documentaries.
Dark Tourist's eight episodes are divided up by region - Japan, Africa, Central America, South-East Asia, Europe, “The Stans,” and two episodes for the USA. Each region usually features three excursions, with Farrier plunging into weird and wild scenarios of all varieties. "Weird" and "wild," however, turn out to be subjective terms.
Many of the show's most intense segments emerge from activities Farrier takes part in. In Benin, our intrepid host is initiated as a voodoo disciple. In Cambodia, he tests out a rumour (true, apparently) that you can pay to shoot a live cow with a machine gun, thankfully pulling out at the last minute. And in Tennessee, he signs a 45-page waiver before being subjected to extreme psychological horror at the hands of a somewhat terrifying ex-military man.
Other attractions come in the form of places: Myanmar's brand-new, virtually empty capital city of Naypyidaw; the ostentatious architecture of totalitarian Turkmenistan; an uncanny “robot hotel” in the middle of a replica Dutch town in Japan. Farrier experiences a variety of new cultures, like Indonesia's mummy and sacrificial rituals and Mexico's Santa Muerte cult. More disturbing even than live animal sacrifices, though, are the doomsday preppers - whether religious, or racist, in the case of race war-fearing Afrikaaner extremists living in the all-white town of Orania.
One recurring theme is an obsession with criminals and killers. From Medellin's bizarre hero-worship of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar to an English crime museum owner's friendship with notorious prisoner Charles Bronson, to the cultlike cottage industries that have built up around figures like Jeffrey Dahmer, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Charles Manson, people love that shit.
Sometimes, the subject material itself turns out to be insufficient to fill a segment, requiring individuals to become the subjects. You can almost see Farrier searching for a story in these segments, like when a bombed-out Kazakh landscape becomes overshadowed by the “danger addict” traveler accompanying him, or when he meets, by chance, a 15-year-old girl who's a pro at spinning cars. Documentary filmmaking is often a process of finding unexpected stories, and Dark Tourist makes this process surprisingly transparent.
Inevitably, Farrier ends up visiting places of extreme poverty, from Colombia's "invasion neighborhoods” to South Africa's ghettoes. It's hard to avoid such outings feeling like poverty tourism - or, in the case of hyper-irradiated Fukushima, disaster tourism. There's a fine line between treating other people's harsh reality as a documentary subject and treating it as a novelty, especially in a series with “Tourist” in the title. At one point Farrier apologises for using the word “slum,” and he strains to justify taking part in a simulated Mexican border crossing experience. During a visit to Japan's famous “suicide forest,” it's hard to exorcise thoughts of Logan Paul's own catastrophic visit. However, Farrier's empathetic curiosity just manages to keep the show away from exploitation. He may be a gawky, metropolitan white dude, but he's genuinely interested in learning about cultures strange to him. That goes a long way.
Indeed, Farrier's personality and good Kiwi humour frequently ends up carrying the show. He's nonthreatening and polite and friendly to everyone, and people seem to like him - which obviously aids in getting subjects to open up. And though Farrier is quietly funny throughout the series, he also knows when to shut up and respect his subjects. Unsurprisingly, he's compared to Louis Theroux (by Charles Manson's heir, of all people!), prompting Farrier to admit that he's been labeled “a cheap version” of the similarly tall, humble, bespectacled English broadcaster before. It's an understandable comparison, if not an entirely fair one.
The extreme nature of some of Farrier’s adventures inevitably leaves other segments disappointing because they’re not weird enough. It's hard to get excited about an English WWII reenactment or a dismayingly tame “vampire” wedding when you've been bombarded with much stranger things. Given Netflix's binge-watching model, that can be an issue. Perhaps Dark Tourist is yet another Netflix series that would be 25% better were it 25% shorter (or went into greater depth on fewer subjects).
Dark Tourist isn't quite as dark as its title would suggest. Rarely, if ever, does Farrier seem in actual danger, radiation poisoning notwithstanding, and several segments don't really live up to expectations. But in its best moments, Dark Tourist is a fascinating glimpse - if only as deep as ten- to fifteen-minute segments allow - at world cultures and histories few will be familiar with. Its sobering moments are every bit as strong as its more prosaic “what the fuck” sequences, and it's filled with dynamic and strange personalities. Tickled is still the best thing on Farrier's CV - but if you can make it through some filler, there's strong work to be found in Dark Tourist.