Featured at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Ivo van Aart’s The Columnist (AKA De Kuthoer) is a film for anyone who has ever been a woman (or POC or trans) on the internet. Honestly, I would love it if trolling-revenge films were the new rape-revenge films. Rather than making an audience sit through a triggering depiction of sexual assault before indulging in the promised cathartic bloodbath, the film instead situates us in the experience of Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, who kills it in this role), a lifestyle columnist for a major paper who hits a cultural nerve with her piece on Zwarte Piet (“Black Pete”), the blackface companion of St. Nicholas celebrated annually in Dutch tradition.
After her column rightfully calls out the racism inherent in donning blackface, her Twitter notifications explode (RIP her mentions). Faced with countless tweets decrying her as any number of misogynistic slurs, as well as a handful of death threats, Boot attempts to solve the problem; first through a television appearance as part of a panel discussion on censorship—where she meets rude, eccentric horror writer and enfant terrible Steven Dood (the wonderful Bram van der Kelen)—and then by heading to the police station, where she is roundly dismissed while attempting to file a report on the online harassment.
Pushed to her limit, Femke announces her ‘retirement’ from Twitter. Naturally, she is unable to disconnect completely and watches in dismay as the comments continue to pile up and new rumours about her begin to spread virally. Once she discovers a disgusting and insulting tweet published by her neighbour, Femke lives out our collective fantasy—she dispatches her internet tormentor. Emboldened and empowered, Femke finds the confidence to seduce her panel antagonist Steven and embark on a truly heartwarming relationship with him, discovering that the acerbic veneer he wears in public to sell books is a false front that hides a truly sensitive and caring soul. But the death of Femke’s neighbour doesn’t spell the end of the harassment, of course, and Femke soon learns just how far she is willing to go in her quest for vengeance.
While the film is an immensely entertaining watch, with fine performances from all involved, it sets up a number of questions about free speech, censorship, anonymity, and the desirability of online civility which it does not, in the end, deign to conclusively answer—and, in many cases, contradicts. Running alongside Femke’s main plotline is the struggle of her daughter, Anna (Claire Porro), to defend the right to free speech in her high school after she is fired from her role at the school’s newspaper for writing a piece critical of the institution. While we cheer on Femke’s delicious and satisfying quest for justice, our straightforward schadenfreude for her trolls is complicated by Femke’s own words regarding the right to free speech and her affection for her lover who lives his own double life as a provocateur. Where do the rights of free speech end? At the point of harassment? Is rude public behaviour mitigated by private tenderness? Are we wrong for being so amused by the pathetic whining of a cornered and cowering internet troll? While the film’s vagueness regarding these points and others like them is slightly frustrating, the triumphant closing scene at the launch party of Femke’s new book is so iconic that I could not help but forgive its faults. Liked, shared, and followed.
Score: 8 out of 10 retweets.