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. Ultimately creating a dark fantasy many internet users who have ever had to deal with trolls will relate to.
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. With anonymous, mostly misogynistic messages filling up her Twitter feed, slowly taking a toll on her mental health and productiveness as she writes her first book. However, instead of turning into a preachy and overly dramatic morality tale, the story takes a dark turn as Femke hunts down and murders her online abusers one by one. This over the top, gory, and violent tone gives the film a comedic edge, making the topic both more serious and facetious.
Due to the short runtime of 83 minutes, the plot is energetic and fast-paced. This favours the film’s narrative arc while keeping the viewers on the edge of their seats. While at the same time delightfully subverting our expectations. A great example is Femke’s new boyfriend, successful horror writer Steven (Bram van der Kelen). His character defying his writing and looks as he becomes an endearing and wholesome addition to the film. Femke, however, is the true protagonist with a delightful performance from Katja Herbers. Her facial expressions and gestures always on point as she ensures the audience root for her character. And here, there is no doubt that her performance is the force behind the film’s enjoyability and richly dark humour.
The Columnist’s absurdity works because the audience likes and roots for Femke from the start. After all, what’s not to like in watching insidious internet trolls get an extreme taste of their own medicine? Femke steps up and takes an online confrontation into the real world. The keyboard warriors own words coming back to bite them as they attempt to hide behind 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.
Here, there is an interesting duality that turns our protagonist into an anti-hero. Her hypocrisy emphasized by her belief in free speech and her murderous intent. However, the film’s absurd and satirical tone really helps to make sense of this controversy, not through simple answers, but by opening the audience’s eyes in raising questions. 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 the 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. By the end of the story, Femke decides to hunt down the trolls ring leader, Tarik. Their meeting resulting in a delightful twist on the story at play. And as she confronts Tarik, another interesting question arises; the anonymous verbal abusers who continuously offend people online often never go to the same lengths of harassment in real life. Femke going on a killing spree puts the 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 in the dangerous morality that sits behind her actions.
Despite the success of the short, sharp runtime, there is also a weakness that 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 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.
In a way, The Columnist is an unusual, creative take on the “rape and revenge” genre. A hilarious, albeit dark detail, makes the connection clear: Femke starts collecting her victims’ middle finger 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. The most well-known example being 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 abusers middle finger – a part of the body used to type hateful messages. Not only that but with this little act, she ultimately holds her own middle finger up to the abuse received.
All in all, the film does a good job of raising questions but fails to provide any answers; this could result in some viewers feeling disappointed. However, the satirical undertones allow for a final movie that is both fun and stimulating. The result, a promising debut from Ivo van Aart who stakes his place as an upcoming director of interest.