The Columnist is released on all major digital platforms from March 12th
Ivo van Aart’s first feature film focuses on online bullying through absurdity and dark humour, resulting in a highly topical and enjoyable yet thought-provoking piece. The film follows Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), a newspaper columnist who believes everyone should express their opinions freely. However, after writing a controversial article about the Dutch tradition Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), she starts receiving endless amounts of online abuse. The anonymous and misogynistic messages fill up her Twitter feed, slowly taking a toll on her mental health and productivity as she attempts to write her first book. But Femke isn’t about to let these messages go unpunished as she hunts down and murders her online abusers.
Due to its short runtime of 83 minutes, The Columnist is energetic and fast-paced as the narrative arc keeps viewers glued to their seats while subverting expectations. Femke, however, is the true protagonist, with a delightful performance from Katja Herbers. Her facial expressions and gestures are always on point as she ensures the audience roots for her character despite her actions. After all, what’s not to like in watching insidious internet trolls get an extreme taste of their own medicine? Here Femke takes online confrontation into the real world – the keyboard warriors’ own words coming back to bite them as they attempt to hide behind disintegrating anonymity. However, we soon realise that we are rooting for an insane serial killer determined to hunt down anyone who takes a shot at her online.
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An interesting duality in Femke’s character turns our protagonist into an anti-hero. Her belief emphasises her hypocrisy in free speech and her murderous intent. However, the film’s absurd and satirical tone helps make sense of this controversy, not through simple answers but by opening the audience’s eyes. This is a smart move, as there is no doubt a more serious tone would have ended with an illogical plot and perplexed audience.
The Columnist makes a strong point of paralleling Femke’s killings with online abuse on a metaphorical level. Femke gets away with murder just as easily as the anonymous commenters and trolls get away with harassing their victims. Femke’s killing spree puts online harassers in the place of the vulnerable victim. With this interesting – and unusual – take, van Aart manages to condemn cyberbullying by placing his audience in Femke’s shoes, challenging us all to explore the dangerous morality that sits behind her actions.
Despite the success of the short, sharp runtime, there is a weakness, as The Columnist never allows enough time for potentially interesting subplots to develop. One of these involves Femke’s teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro) and an event on free speech she is about to host at school. The parallel between Anna’s school project and Femke’s killing spree is never fully explored or dissected. Another blink-and-you-miss-it topic mentions paedophilic accusations made against Femke, referencing an article she had written about dating a 15-year-old boy when she was 19. Again, this is never to find a dedicated voice, only included to further fuel Femke’s hatred for her online abusers.
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In many ways, The Columnist is an unusual, creative take on the “rape and revenge” genre. A hilarious, albeit dark, detail makes this connection clear as Femke starts collecting her victims’ middle fingers in an empty pasta box. The nonchalance of the situation is funny on its own, but the underlying reference to a recurring plot point of the rape-revenge genre is brilliantly subtle. In rape-revenge films, the female protagonist often gets her revenge by emasculating her perpetrators, for example, in Meir Zarchi’s 1978 cult classic I Spit On Your Grave. In The Columnist, rape is substituted for online harassment; therefore, Femke gets rid of the abuser’s of their middle finger – a part of the body used to type hateful messages. The result is a promising debut from Ivo van Aart who stakes his place as an upcoming director of interest.