Fantasia 2020: 'The Columnist' Showcases the Toxicity of Social Media
by Zofia Wijaszka
August 14, 2020
Screened as a selection of the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Shortly after watching The Columnist, I noticed that Twitter enabled a very interesting feature – you can now control who can reply to your tweets. It would be a highly valuable benefit for Femke Boot (played by Dutch actress Katja Herbers), the titular columnist of a local newspaper, and author of an upcoming book. The film, directed by Ivo van Aart (of Quantum Zeno) and written by Daan Windhorst, is a powerful revenge comedy horror and a cautionary tale that perfectly connects to contemporary culture, teaching us an important lesson. Plus, it's bloody good fun.
Femke has one simple intention - she wants to stop hate on social media platforms. It's something that she writes about and speaks out about. After signing a contract for a book, her deadline approaches. Instead, she cannot stop scrolling through her Twitter page and reading hurtful comments from users. Some of them especially grab her attention: the user that calls himself "Bosskabouter". Or less anonymous: her next-door neighbor, Arjen Tol (Rein Hofman). Femke keeps it together, only idly obsessing over her internet trolls until Arjen goes too far with his comments. It's the same neighbor who thought it was appropriate to do "blackface" and call Femke "dim-witted," then use even worse phrases. Her anger develops slowly, first with Arjen's fence that Femke breaks in a fit of anger. But it gradually advances to bloody madness. Femke soon spirals into the depths of online bullying, deciding to impose a personal vendetta on her oppressors.
While building her budding relationship with a fellow writer, Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen) and also raising her daughter, Anna (Claire Porro), Femke converts into a self-righteous vigilante. The columnist hunts her bullies online. Her gruesome actions seldom look like reactionary accidents. But most of them are full of passion and violence. The circumstances seem to inspire her, and her writing improves more than ever. Femke's doings fuel her thoughts and give her a new perspective on life.
Katja Herbers is currently most known from her role as Emily on HBO's "Westworld". In The Columnist, she's Femke – a mother, a partner, and a cold-blooded killer. Her character doesn't seem like other vengeful ladies we know, although, after careful inspection, her personality, especially threatening calculation and chilling composure, resembles Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo. Her efforts sound reasonable, at least in Femke's mind. But in reality, they aren't. She responds to hate with hate. As Femke, Herbers is exceptional. The character embodies the way modern society operates in the era of social media, and is dependent on it every single day. Bram van der Kelen, as her partner and a mysterious persona within the writers' circles, perfectly completes her image. Claire Porro acts as contrast to her mother's actions in the film. At the same time, when Femke chases yet another online troll, Anna speaks out about freedom of speech at her school.
Ivo van Aart created a film that very much relates to contemporary society and how we perceive certain social mediums, especially how we use them. The Columnist raises a very important question – do we use Twitter to encourage hate, or to connect with people? Another thing the director achieves with this story and especially expressed through the character of Femke is an issue that many people wrestle with, without even knowing it – our overuse of social media platforms. After watching The Columnist, I also realized that I myself spend too much time on Twitter, often getting worked up about things and words that I don't have any influence on anyway. And that's what van Aart express phenomenally with this film. Together with Windhorst, they force the audience to stop and reflect.
The intent of the film pairs well with the bloody carnage generated by Femke's actions. As mentioned prior, the main character rationalizes her doings by saying, "Be kind!" or "Why can't we have different opinions and be nice to each other?" All the while smiling and holding her victim's finger that she just cut off with a shovel. Or holding a teenager at gunpoint. Through her actions, the creators showcase people's numbness to social media platforms. People often believe that whatever they say anonymously, stays anonymous. But "words can also hurt," Femke says to Anna at some point. The film's overall themes and portrayal of two sides of the worst perspective evoke similar feelings to the message of Craig Zobel's The Hunt – another film that highlights the importance of words with its unique plot and complex main character.
The Columnist awoke ambivalent feelings in me and really forced me to reflect. On one hand, it displays the toxic side of social media, which has an extremely negative impact on society. The comments that disturb the main character were not created by the writer's imagination, they are real. Women often encounter objectifying language. Even I, a film critic, have heard my share of slurs after writing a positive or negative article. On the other hand, it showcases Femke's problem and reminds us of one crucial rule: don't read the comments. The bullying completely sucks her in to a breaking point. The complexity of emotions I felt after watching The Columnist make it a great film that can further provoke debate and discussion.
Ivo van Aart's The Columnist is a thought-provoking, controversial picture that is an absolute must watch. It holds a perfect amount of gore while teaching a valuable lesson to its audience. With Femke's startling composure, Steven's constant rationalization, as well as Anna's fighting spirit, we're treated to a story that perfectly captures modern society. We are often sucked into the world of Twitter, Facebook, and such, not realizing that we focus more on hate more than on anything else. If you're ready to have fun and reflect, this is a film that will consume your thoughts. But it will be for your own good.
Zofia's Fantasia 2020 Rating: 5 out of 5
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