The Columnist Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by NL Film & TV
Directed by Ivo van Aart
Written by Daan Windhorst
2019, 86 minutes, Not Yet Rated
Frightfest UK Premiere on 29th August 2020
Genio de Groot as Arend
Katja Herbers as Femke Boot
Rein Hofman as Arjen Tol
Bram van der Kelen as Steven Dood
Nobody likes an internet troll, but sadly, most of us will have had some kind of experience of online abuse; the internet allows a certain kind of person to indulge their sadistic tendencies in anonymity. Trolls tend to derive a sense of power in belittling or tormenting others and they do it for a myriad of reasons - they may be bigots, racists, homophobes, or misogynists, or they may simply enjoy being confrontational… at a safe distance.
In The Columnist, Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) is a writer for the newspaper De Volkskrant and is working on her first book. When she goes on TV to argue for more courtesy and decency on social media, the response she receives is merely a barrage of online abuse.
Director Ivo van Aart and screenwriter Daan Windhorst know whereof they speak, because during their time at Dutch news website De Correspondent they themselves experienced the onslaught of laptop antagonists. Making their central character a woman gives additional scope for their victim to be verbally attacked in a variety of nasty ways.
In her job as a columnist Femke puts herself out there, politically and personally, but every day she must wade through a sea of online invective. Whether it’s in disagreement with her political stance, or whether it’s merely offensive comments about her personal appearance, it seems that people are unable to comment in any civilized fashion, too often degenerating into derision, slander or even death threats. “Don’t read the comments, never read the comments!” warns Steven (Bram van der Kelen), her horror-writer boyfriend, when he catches her scrolling through the responses to her latest newspaper column.
After reading a stream of insults and threats, Femke feels paralyzed, too upset to write or to do her job. She simply can’t understand why people can’t be polite to each other, but the cruel world of the internet is wearing her down. Feeling nervous, distraught and powerless, she has no outlet into which she can channel her own anger and fear. Then, coincidentally, she recognizes one of her trolls as her next door neighbour. Scrolling through his twitter timeline she is shocked to find that the seemingly ordinary DIY enthusiast who lives next door harbours some very unsavoury views and opinions. Then one day, she sees him working on the roof...
Femke quietly finds a purpose in life - her mission is to eliminate internet trolls, and I don’t mean just expel them from the web. Tracking down and getting rid of her persecutors, she feels elated, liberated and empowered. Her writer’s block miraculously lifts and she begins writing her book and feeling free to discuss whatever she wants in her regular column.
However, the online abuse hasn’t stopped, and one particular culprit begins to spread a very nasty and slanderous rumour about Femke all over the web, but of course, he’s using a pseudonym. Things become even more awkward when her teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro) finds a bag of bloodstained tools in the shed and jumps to entirely the wrong conclusion.
The Columnist is clearly a satirical horror, and one that wickedly fulfils a generally held desire to dispense some rough justice on those who like to bully or insult people just for the hell of it, because they can do it anonymously, and because they don’t fear any consequences.
When confronted by a victim face to face, one who challenges them about their graphic threats and insults, most of Femke’s trolls prove to be the cowards we suspect them to be, offering up weak, pathetic excuses for their vicious behaviour (although there is at least one who decides he won’t go down without a fight).
The Columnist also purports to deal with the thorny question of freedom of speech. Although our sympathies may lie with Femke and the injustice she feels regarding her predicament, she isn’t entirely the blameless character she seems to be.
Femke ostensibly takes the position that anyone can say anything without censorship or fear of being silenced. She actively encourages her schoolgirl daughter to campaign for these freedoms and to demonstrate her own freedom of speech by openly insulting her headmaster as a figure of authority.
Femke shows a lack of self-awareness and confusion in her standpoint, which reveals a symptom of her paranoia and madness. She should know better because of course, in actuality, she is all too aware that words have a terrible power - the power to defame, to instill fear, to ruin and destroy lives - an aspect of modern life that the internet has made possible. The film presents some of the current arguments surrounding freedom of speech and the ways in which the internet offers a platform for it but evades the responsibility.
Dutch actress Katja Herbers is marvelous in the role of Femke. She gives her character a touching vulnerability, a surprisingly black sense of humour and a shocking fierceness when she gets into her murderous stride. Her accusations and anger when confronting her tormentors is entirely logical, even if her subsequent actions are extreme. The problem arises as to how addictive might it become to conveniently dispose of those who bandy hurtful words around without fearing any comeback.
The theme of internet hate lends itself to a serious and topical social debate, but first and foremost The Columnist is a revenge fantasy and a satire, one that slyly encourages us to vicariously enjoy Femke’s mission of retribution for the injustices she suffers. Here the internet trolls do pay the price for their actions, and in a pretty brutal way. What is even better is that they don’t see it coming. Secretly, don’t we all find that a rather satisfying idea?
‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me’ - internet trolls might like to contemplate that familiar saying, because according to The Columnist, they should think for a minute before starting to type venom with their fingers, because one of those fingers might just end up in someone’s freezer.
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