The Columnist Is a Satirical, Bloody Survey of the Limits of Free Speech

Movies Reviews Katja Herbers
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The Columnist Is a Satirical, Bloody Survey of the Limits of Free Speech

Any writer will attest to Twitter being a special brand of personal hell. Whether it serves as a tremendous time-suck, a platform for dim-witted discourse or a vehicle for egotistical maniacs to spew unnecessary vitriol, many writers grapple with using Twitter in a way that is both productive and personally fulfilling.

The Columnist’s central character, Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), a staffer for the Dutch daily newspaper Volkskrant, personifies this struggle. Unable to separate herself from the morbid and unyielding stream of death threats that perpetually bombarded her on Twitter, she quickly descends into an unhealthy obsession surrounding her online harassment. Due to her politically progressive and overwhelmingly feminist columns, she has been made public enemy number one by every edgy online sexist in Holland. This vocal community ultimately serves as Femke’s own personal hunting ground when she can no longer cope with the persistence of strangers graphically detailing how they wish to impale her, “cunt-first.”

While some viewers might expect The Columnist to further ruminate on the validity of female rage as it pertains to lashing back against rape culture a la Promising Young Woman, director Ivo van Aart is far more interested in exploring the messy intricacies of freedom of speech and the violence inherent in attempting to suppress it. Ironically, Femke’s teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro) ruthlessly campaigns for a free speech rally to be held at her school in support of those who live in countries which restrict freedom of speech for citizens.

“It’s about people in Turkey, Russia, the Philippines who risk their lives every time they write some criticism on the internet,” Anna argues after her mother scoffs at her campaign.

“It’s just so incredibly prissy, Anna,” Femke retorts.

Obviously, Femke has a less sympathetic view of the topic, going so far as to call it “old-fashioned” in a speech she writes for her daughter’s campaign. She does kind of have a point, what with the recent phenomenon of intolerant journalists like Bari Weiss leaving their day jobs and citing a rise in “wokeness” as a threat to their first amendment rights. There is also the unfortunate overlap (at least in the U.S.) of freedom of speech also protecting hate speech as an immutable right. Of course, the latter aspect is what Femke finds most insidious, as the Dutch police actively mock her attempt to report the escalating misogynistic threats targeting the writer and her family.

“My advice is to simply not look at these websites anymore,” replies a slack-jawed cop to Femke’s request to file a police report. “It’s the internet, it’s not real.”

When Femke begins dating a seemingly dark-sided horror writer named Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen) who initially lambasts her on live TV, she receives the same advice in a drastically less condescending tone. As a writer who assumes a completely different identity in order to sell his macabre fiction, Steven has mastered the art of separating his personal and professional spheres and consistently reminds Femke to abide by a simple piece of advice: “Don’t read the comments.”

While the former impudent comment by the cop would send any rational woman on a murderous rampage, Steven’s measured and rational instruction reveals an unpleasant truth: As a writer, it’s easy to become self-obsessed and bitter. While this is in no way a condemnation of Femke’s rightful anger towards the frenzied group of men who target and harass her for simply doing her job, it’s evident that The Columnist is uninterested in presenting a character who is untainted by hypocrisy and selfishness. Femke becomes so engulfed in her obsessive quest for revenge that she continually lets her daughter down and creates a palpable air of distrust in her otherwise loving relationship. With every middle finger she collects post-mortem from her sleazy victims and stashes in a box of forgotten frozen peas in the back of her freezer, Femke inches closer to personal euphoria and professional fulfillment—but strays ever farther from connecting with those who care about the person she is outside of her column.

“In Holland, we have stretched the barriers of what we can say so much,” reads a speech Femke writes for her daughter’s rally. “I can write anything I want in my column. But there are places where people are killed for what they write on the internet. Killed for their words. So what for us is just commonplace, a cliché, a boring truth, should be repeated time and time again: Everything can be said.”

There is a great dissonance between what Femke writes and the aim of her vigilante crusade against internet trolls, a chasm that van Aart enthusiastically traverses. At the offset, it’s easy for the viewer to cheer a woman reclaiming her personal safety in the wake of police negligence. However, Femke’s internet sleuthing only gets her so far, eventually impacting the lives of the innocent in her quest for bloody atonement.

“If people don’t agree with me, they are allowed to be angry,” her speech continues. “They are allowed to curse me, fight against me with every argument that they can come up with. But they aren’t allowed to silence me.”

The Columnist argues that silence can be more violent and political than speech. Whether silence is encouraged in order to avoid conflict, imposed on communities that have the gall to retaliate against powerful figures or unjustly enacted among those who are not afforded the chance to recompense for their actions, it is always wrongly weaponized by those with a personal vendetta.

“Why can’t we just have different opinions and be nice about it?” Femke vocalizes repeatedly throughout the film, either in broadcast TV interviews or while grilling her victims at gunpoint. What she fails to understand is that neither she nor her assaulters are actually expressing a difference in opinion—rather, they are embroiled in battle over who can (and should) say what, neither party willing to see personal grievances go without due punishment. It’s this penchant for penance that propels violence on both sides of the divide, ultimately spreading misery to those who exist on the real-world margins of online crusades.

Director: Ivo van Aart
Writer: Daan Windhorst
Stars: Katja Herbers, Bram van der Kelen, Claire Porro, Rein Hofman, Genio de Groot
Release Date: May 7, 2021 (Film Movement)

Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.