Social media has always been a highly antagonistic place for a woman to navigate, but over the last few years, it has become a vile breeding ground for trolls that know no boundaries and they don’t care what your gender is. While anyone is fair game when it comes to the vitriol of an online user that disagrees with you, women still bear the brunt of the ugliness. In The Columnist playing at Fantasia Film Festival 2020, an intelligent, outspoken woman is enemy number one and Femke Boot is now having her time in the spotlight.
After appearing on a talk show hot on the heels of a column in which she calls for the end of Black Pete, a Dutch tradition that allows for it’s participants to appear in black face, Femke feels the quick onslaught of Twitter trolls (primarily men) who are only clever enough to call her a cunt, assume she is frigid and accuse her of being a pedophile. While on this talk show, Femke says, “Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” Seems like an easy and plain enough request, but anyone who has spent more than a nanosecond online knows that this is a near impossible request. Also joining her at this round table is an author known as Steven Dood, which translates to Steven Death, and he specializes in the macabre. He is also skilled in being unnecessarily snide and dismissive of Femke’s simple request.
Upon returning home, Femke can’t help but read Twitter and the comments about her. Safe in her bed, she sees someone remark that they know where she lives and this is when the danger of online anger shows the possibility of translating into real life violence. On the hook with her editor to hand in a novel, Femke is experiencing writer’s block and she uses this time in which she’s not working to look at the comments on her articles. A single mother who is raising an equally outspoken teenage daughter, Femke’s fear turns to anger as the violent comments keep rolling in.
Katja Herbers approaches the role of Femke with an expertly nuanced balance of fear, fragility and a woman pushed to her breaking point. When she makes the unsettling discovery that one of her more active online trolls is her next door neighbor, it’s not entirely surprising when he meets an untimely death. This moment is dark humor at it’s best and it’s the kickoff for a killing spree that not only helps her release stress, but also relieves her writer’s block. Simultaneously finding herself in a very happy relationship with the very Steven Dood himself, the film makes some heavy handed observations about the kind of people who write and consume crime and horror fiction while showing us a woman who writes about soft boiled eggs being the one who goes out at night looking to even scores, but it’s also a fair observation: there is still a lot of misunderstanding about the “kinds” of people who can write about murder, be it real or fake.
A secondary storyline with Femke’s daughter is a bit clumsy with it’s intended purpose and also supplies her with a red herring that feels unnecessary, but at this point in the film everyone is spiraling, so at least it’s all cohesive in tone. It can also not be understated how perplexing it is for Femke to go about committing so many murders without ever being a suspect. Is there no fingerprinting, no CCTV, no police procedure of any kind? I suppose not since the police showed her nothing but blatant apathy when she tried to report the harassment and this is what helped fuel her anger. In fact, no one in her life takes it seriously and that, in itself, is a huge commentary on the public at large and it’s unwillingness to accept the fact that women live in a different and more dangerous world than men do. Writer Daan Windhorst and director Ivo van Aart have stylishly and cleverly presented Femke’s story while keeping it easily digestible for all genders. As Femke chats with her victims, she has one main question: why can’t you just be kind? It’s simplistic, but also so true. Why can’t we all just be kind to one another? When did we become so cruel? Is it simply the screen separating us from the world that emboldens us to say any ugly thing that comes to mind when someone has the audacity to disagree with us? While The Columnist only scratches the surface of these questions, it does so in a quirky, charming and slyly amusing way. And that final shot is the kind of life moment that the internet would eagerly eat up and repurpose into memes, gifs, opinion pieces and, ultimately turn into the main subject of a talk show round table. Hopefully, this one won’t have another Femke sitting at it.
Played as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival