FANTASIA FESTIVAL REVIEW – ‘The Columnist’ is a cathartic experience for anyone who’s ever dealt with online trolls

One of the many joys of being a writer in the 21st century is unconsciously opening yourself up to the white-hot vitriol fired off by nasty keyboard warriors around the globe. Amongst the open forums of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, there will always be those looking to victimise, bully, and harass anyone with an opinion slightly different from their own. By daring to share your voice in the online world, we inherently accept hatred is all but a predestined certainty.

The relative anonymity of the internet has long provided a safe haven for the most detestable behaviour that rarely sees any consequences for those who enact it. Wouldn’t it be nice to witness someone retaliate and punish those who inflict so much misery on total strangers? That’s precisely the premise of Ivo van Aart‘s deliciously wicked black comedy The Columnist, which will likely prove to be a cathartic experience for anyone who’s ever dealt with online trolls.

After the release of her “divisive” article tackling the blatant racism of traditional Dutch Christmas character Black Pete (take a Google and you’ll see why he’s a problematic figure of folklore), journalist Femke Boot (Katha Herbers) becomes the target of a vicious swarm of misogynistic trolls. Her appearance on a local talk-show where she begs for more tolerance online only seems to fuel her haters even further, with the tweets and comments becoming increasingly threatening and violent.

In a bid to distract herself from the continuing online attacks, Femke focuses on her teenager daughter Anna (Claire Porror), who has inherited her mother’s activism streak and is publishing provocative articles of her own in the school paper. But it’s not long before Femke is ignoring the wise advice (“Never read the comments.”) of her fellow writer boyfriend Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen) and begins to obsessively check Twitter and Facebook to see what’s being said about her.

When Femke realises one of her online bullies is someone she actually knows in real life, she finally snaps and unleashes the desire for vengeance that’s been building inside the writer for some time. After unmercifully despatching another online troll in brutal fashion, Femke’s newfound status as a crusading vigilante breaks her crippling writer’s block and her writing suddenly flows like never before. Soon enough, Femke’s addiction to Twitter is only matched by her lust with locating the users behind the foul tweets and enacting her furious revenge.

For anyone (but especially any writer) who’s ever been on the receiving end of a mean tweet, rude Facebook comment, or vulgar message board post, it’s instantly easy to sympathise with Femke’s plight. Subsequently, it’s also richly satisfying to see the victimised writer gleefully perform her violent vengeance on members of the internet’s hall of shame. Femke deserves her retribution, particularly after innocent words from her past are twisted into a ludicrous conspiracy theory she’s secretly a pedophile.

In our current state of “cancel culture,” it’s a pertinent plot point essentially ripped from the headlines, with old tweets and interviews constantly coming back to haunt public figures. A misspoken word or innocent gaff often provides fodder for trolls to manipulate in a bid to destroy someone’s career, and The Columnist taps into how slander campaigns are born and the effect derived when they spread all over the internet. Sure, it’s a hyper-realistic response from Famke to set out to savagely murder those behind the defamation, but, gosh, it’s gloriously fun to watch.

But van Aart and screenwriter Daan Windhorst wisely balance Femke’s devilish descent into vengeance with the inescapable fact she’s becoming a far greater villain than those she’s punishing. As detestable as online trolling may be, it pales in comparison to premeditated, cold-blooded murder. Femke is ultimately so lost in her bid for justice that she loses sight of the notion her victims are just sad loners with nothing better to do than spit hatred online. That doesn’t excuse their behaviour, but the film deftly grapples with the notion Femke’s killings are far from as righteous as she believes.

When Femke confronts her oppressors, she generally finds they’re timid, pathetic, and immature souls whose bravado in the digital world quickly evaporates in reality, especially when their victim is standing directly in front of their face. We’ve all felt much stronger and braver in an online setting (who hasn’t sheepishly sent an email they’d never say to someone in person?), but those who take that strength and use it to attack others consistently forget they’re aiming their hatred at a real person with real feelings.

Even with the film’s deeper introspections regarding online behaviour, The Columnist is still inherently a dark comedy centred on one woman’s delicious roaring rampage of revenge. There’s something so wildly entertaining about seeing vapid trolls receive their long-overdue comeuppance, especially when Femke has a wide smile plastered on her face the entire time. She’s enjoying dealing out her punishment, and it’s best to sit back and take guilty pleasure in witnessing her riot.

The film’s ultimate success lies at the feet of the talented Herbers, whose performance is a menacing force to be reckoned with. In almost an instant, Herbers takes Femke from a helpless victim crying out to be left alone to an anger-fueled murderess with a score to settle in the most gruesome ways possible. The dazzling transformation is a sight to behold. Even in the midst of the most unspeakable of acts, Herbers finds the pathos in a terribly complicated female heroine. After all, Femke is an ardent advocate for freedom of speech, yet she’s penalising those who are essentially exercising that very right.

Whether hate-filled speech is considered to fall under the wide umbrella of free speech is a notion constantly discussed online. It’s a complex issue the film can’t quite find an answer to, but perhaps one simply doesn’t even exist. The frustrating and painful situation faced by Femke is an experience many are currently suffering through, particularly women. As the target of online hate, your entire world is swamped by the angry words being said about you, which van Aart cleverly manifests as projected tweets that surround Femke as she walks the aisle of a supermarket. It’s a brilliant representation of how all-consuming (and maybe even strangely addictive) hatred can become for its victim.

There’s plenty of sardonically black comedy to enjoy here, but van Aart never loses sight of the fact his protagonist is ultimately the film’s true villain and her behaviour is never portrayed as anything but an extreme response to online hate. The Columnist is a giddily entertaining vengeance fantasy that also manages to tackle an issue that’s painfully relevant to our times. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and this film disburses it with icy fury. Maybe you’ll think twice before sending that nasty tweet the next time something irks you.

Distributor: NL Film
Cast: Katja Herbers, Bram van der Kelen, Claire Porro, Rein Hofman, Genio de Groot
Director: Ivo van Aart
Producers: Katja Wolffers, Sabine Brian, Ronald Versteeg
Screenplay: Daan Windhorst
Cinematography: Martijn Cousijn
Production Design: Robert van der Hoop
Costume Design: Maxa van Panhuis
Music: Jeffrey van Rossum

Editing: Imre Reutelingsperger, Yamal Stitou
Running Time: 86 minutes

‘The Columnist’ plays as part of Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 from August 20 – September 2. For more information and tickets, head HERE.