Chicago: The Columnist
14 October 2020
Dutch actor Katja Herbers stars in The Columnist, Ivo van Aart's comic take on the very serious subject of social media trolling. The film is selected for the upcoming Chicago Int'l Film Festival and previously received the nod from the Fantasia Film Festival (Montreal).
Femke Boot is a high profile journalist whose writing doesn't go unnoticed. Far from it. However, the people who feel compelled to comment on her work aren't fellow scribes or celebrities, rather the small army of social media followers whose comment is shocking, abusive and misogynistic, and quite often bordering on the criminal.
Yes, Femke believes in freedom of speech (she supports her teenage daughter in her demands for such rights after she is kicked off the school editorial board) but the level of abuse she suffers at the hands of trolls has become insufferable. And so she decides to confront her tormentors... violently, despatching them one by one in an impressive and inventive symphony of grand guignol.
The first is thrown off a roof, the second is electrocuted in the bath when she lobs in the laptop he uses to post his tweets, and for the rest she deploys just about every kitchen and garden utensil (as well as a shot gun) during a campaign of controlled mayhem. Each time she removes a trophy finger from her victim and after each killing her creative mojo receives a significant boost.
In the process she even manages to snag an unlikely boyfriend, the goth thriller writer Steven Dood (a fine example of nominative determinism, given Femke's new-found murderous tendencies) who had previously verbally lacerated her on a primetime chat show.
The film's climax at the launch of Femke's new book is, not surprisingly, a deliciously bloody affair (her choice of a white trouser suit just adds to the effect) at which point we find out the price she must pay, if any, for dealing so extremely with her online detractors.
Still: The Columnist
"It's a universal problem," comments director Ivo van Aart of online abuse. "I think the emotion of Femke is close to how Daan (Windhorst, writer) and I feel when we talk about Twitter and online hate in the Netherlands, where everybody seems to have an opinion about something."
But why a comedy and not a drama, or even a documentary? "It was always our intention to make a satirical film from the very start," he responds of the film produced by NL Film and supported by the Netherlands Film Fund. "It is a way of telling a story that maybe resonates more deeply with the audience. If you make a joke out of it the commentary becomes a little bit more strong, a bit more vicious and poignant in a way. That was our way to elevate the problem."
"If you spend too much time on Twitter it's almost impossible to stay positive and to get a positive opinion about people. I think that's how we approached it," he adds.
Van Aart was determined that the film should be grounded in popular and contemporary Dutch TV and magazine culture, so that the viewing public could identify strongly with the issue. Femke therefore works for the daily newspaper de Volkskrant and the film even accesses the paper's Twitter and Facebook feeds, he says. What's more, the chat show in the film is the very popular De Wereld Draait Door show, hosted by Matthijs van Nieuwkerk, a kind of Dutch David Letterman.
Actor Katja Herbers plays the lovable cynic very convincingly, and her hilarious descent into psychopathic madness is delivered with a very straight face.
"Yes, it becomes grotesque, but certainly at the beginning her sarcastic, grumpy and very understated character was very important because you are going to a very over the top place at the end of the film." Van Aart agrees. "It is a play on the genre. It is a satirical movie with a wink and a nudge and it is larger than life, but at the same time we have to have a character that we can identify with, who we understand. So we focussed a lot on getting the drama right, getting the character right and making her as believable as possible within the very weird world that we created around her."
For more information about The Columnist:
Ph: +31 20 574 7626
Sales: Dutch Features
Ph: +31 23 888 0168
Festival selections The Columnist:
Fantasia Film Festival Montreal
Telluride Horror Show, Colorado
Chicago International Film Festival
Celluloid Screams: Sheffield Horror Film Festival
Anomaly Film Festival (Rochester, New York)