The world is full of dark and mysterious places.
Unfortunately, though, visiting these parts of the globe come with an inherent danger and risk. That’s where journalist David Farrier comes in, because with his brand new Netflix series Dark Tourist the New Zealander visits these preposterously dangerous places so we don’t have to.
But Farrier doesn’t just go deep into the still heavily radiated ruins of Fukushima, Japan, the exact spot where JFK was killed in Dallas and swim in a lake formed by a nuclear blast.
He also dives head first into tours, activities and culture rituals that run across the length and breadth of the planet. From mixing it with Pablo Escobar’s former enforcer, to cleaning a mummified corpse, and not forgetting the most extreme and dangerous haunted house you will ever lay eyes on.
I recently had the chance to talk to Farrier, who spoke at length about Dark Tourist, its charismatic characters and just how ethical dark tourism actually is.
Have you always been interested in dark tourism?
I’ve always on my own holidays gravitated away from normal destinations, and I have always liked to go somewhere a bit different. But the idea actually came from my friend in New Zealand, who had had this idea about doing a series around dark tourism forever. Then thought, ‘Oh, shit. Maybe I can work with David on that.’ He pitched it to me, I loved it. Because it allowed me to go to some of these crazy destinations and meet some of the people associated with them. So I took it to Netflix, the liked the idea, and we made it.
Is the David Farrier on “Dark Tourist” a character?
I tend to be more deadpan on camera than I am in my dad to day life. Essentially it is me. But because I am in these situations I know that it is better if I am more flat, and not stressed or too opinionated, then I can soak in what is happening around me. So if I am anything it is a much more deadpan version of myself. But it is still essentially me. It’s not too different to the day to day David.
Did you ever struggle to keep deadpan?
Yeah, there was a situation in Indonesia where I was being hit by sticks on my legs, in this friendship ritual that they do. Everyone gets these long bamboo sticks. And the entire game is to hit other people with sticks as hard as they can until they tap out, essentially. So I found it hard to maintain my composure during that, when I was in a great deal of pain. Similarly, with the radiation situation in Fukushima and the Polygon, when the whole team was getting paranoid about the level of radiation. You know, we had done the whole tests beforehand, we knew what was safe and what wasn’t, but that doesn’t really change things when you are actually there and you suddenly find yourself in a hot-spot. Yeah that’s when the worry creep in, and it is hard to hide.
I thought you were quite calm in that moment.
I probably was one of the calmer ones there. But there were definitely a few moments where I got a bit more stressed out than I am used to. Also, another extreme was when we were on this little floating village just off the coast of Africa, there was a self-harm ceremony going on, which felt like you were going to get bopped in the head by someone. And I got quite anxious in the situation there.
What was the process for filming?
It was a weird process. We were kind of figuring out as we went. It was shot over a year, maybe nine months. We would usually shoot an episode at a time, occasionally two episodes back to back. Each episode is typically 3 countries. We’d go and shoot for roughly a week in each location, factoring in travel time. Then I would come back to New Zealand and start working on the last show we had shot, which had been in the edit booth for a while. Then I would have time to check in on the following episode, make sure that was all on track, because we had a team working on all those things. Then I would be back in New Zealand for a few weeks, before we would fly off for the next lot. So it was a lot of flying from New Zealand, which seems ridiculous because New Zealand is so far away from everywhere. So I earned a lot of Air Miles.
What was the hardest country to get in to?
Turkmenistan was the one we struggled the most with. It is incredibly hard to get in with cameras, which is why we were so relieved when there was an Olympic event going on there. Because you can’t have that without letting some media in. Turkmenistan was incredible difficult because we were being watched all the time, too. And if you are trying to make a documentary series it is not an easy place to shoot. Kazakhstan became tricky, filming the Polygon in the middle of nowhere. It just becomes difficult charging things up, and backing things up. They didn’t have the resources to do all that boring stuff. Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Any of the Stans were challenging to film in.
There are a lot of ethical questions surrounding dark tourism, how did you respond to that and did you ever feel like you crossed a line?
Popeye, Pablo Escobar’s right-hand man, giving him screen time in any capacity, I feel like there are ethical questions there. Because he has killed a lot of people, and he now has this other life where he is a YouTube celebrity and because of things like “Narcos” he is known about on a much larger scale. He would tell you that he is reformed and a different person now. But is putting him on screen the right thing to do? I mean there are different things you face like that. But our whole approach all the way through was not to go in and judge them but to let them talk and let them talk about the dark tourist place that we were in. And then to, I know it sounds very stereotypical to say, but to just leave it over to the viewers to make up their own minds about that person in that situation.
I thought you handled the “Narcos” guy pretty well. I mean, I was nervous for you when you were interviewing him, as you asked him some pretty tough questions.
It is the elephant in the room. In the back of my head the entire time was, ‘This guy, someone told him to shoot and kill his pregnant girlfriend.’ I kept telling myself, ‘I have got to bring this up.’ But, you know, I am not a hard-hitting interviewer. That’s just a really strange thing to have to raise with anyone. I just popped the question out, and tried to treat him like another human. I also thought, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen?’ If he reacted badly to it I wasn’t there on my own. I had a crew with me, and I have my friend there with me. So I would like to think they would step in. But Popeye was an odd character. He knew that he had done terrible things, but he was just so incredibly charismatic and could light up a room. And we knew he could fly off the rails at any point, but I had my fingers crossed that I was being courteous and polite and that he would take that in the right way.
All of the people you spend a substantial amount of time with seemed to be charismatic. Even Russ, the guy who ran the extreme haunted house, and I couldn’t tell if there was a screw loose or if he just came at life from a slightly different angle.
When you end up in these bizarre places. I mean, we visited some pretty bizarre spots around the world. But you find that the people that are associate with them are kind of larger than life. And with someone like Russ, I don’t know, I still couldn’t decide if there was a screw loose or not. Or if what he liked to do was push people to their limits. Maybe that is fine, or maybe he was getting some dark sadistic pleasure out of it. If he was he wasn’t going to tell me that. I left him not quite knowing to be honest. Hanging out with him and his girlfriend over those three days was a very surreal experience. He was probably one of the few guys I walked away from not knowing quite what had happened and what really made him tick.
Especially because he doesn’t get paid for it.
He just wants dog food. If you give him dog food, he will take you through the torture experience. That’s all he want. It was part of the game. Him and Popeye, really, left me wondering what was going down deep in the brain, you know.
“Dark Tourist” is now on Netflix.