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Review: 'The Columnist' Delves into Hate Speech - Maybe Not Deeply Enough

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 7, 2021
Review: 'The Columnist' Delves into Hate Speech - Maybe Not Deeply Enough

As a woman writer, I've endured online harassment via misogynist slurs and death/rape threats. Sadly, it's ubiquitous for women and non-binary people, particularly women of color. The anonymity of social media and comment sections make some people feel invincible, and permitted to spew hateful vitriol.

Directed by Ivo van Aart and written by Daan Windhorst, "The Columnist" is a blistering Dutch horror film and a satire tackling misogynist online harassment. Katja Herbers portrays newspaper columnist Femke Boot, who finds herself inundated with "online hate messages and death threats."

The film opens on a close-up of Femke nervously biting her nails. She's interviewed on television about social media and harassment. Femke obsessively reads tweets and comments. While not translated via subtitles, research reveals that the comments involve cyberstalking and misogynist slurs. A great shot involves Femke's face in close-up, scrolling comments reflected in her eye. Katja Herbers perfectly encapsulates Femke's anxiety, obsession, and rage. She effectively uses body language and gestures (anxiously picking at her fingers) to convey vacillating moods.

Femke is divorced, living with her daughter, Anna (Claire Porro), who campaigns for free speech at school. In addition to her column, Femke is writing a book. Her editor receives hate mail about Femke every day. Femke starts dating Steven (Bram van der Kelen), a writer she sparred with on TV. He advises, "Never read the comments." Others dismiss Femke's harassment. A friend says it's not "that bad," since she didn't go to police. A cop condescendingly brushes off the harassment when Femke tries to report it, ignoring the fact that online harassment isn't less harmful or dangerous because it transpires online.

While grocery shopping, Femke reads comments on her phone. Tweets literally pop up, flanking her; and we feel bombarded as she does. After realizing her next-door neighbor is a commenter, she chops his fence with an axe. Later, she casually pushes him off the roof. Femke begins stalking commenters to kill them.

The color red cocoons Femke in the opening scene (the studio and lights), symbolizing bloody violence. Red additionally appears as a shattered jar of pasta sauce and blood splattering a white suit. Femke swipes at a spider in a web (another visual motif), allegorically foreshadowing eliminating predators, and becoming predatory herself.

Waging war against men, Femke becomes a serial killer of misogynist online trolls. She utilizes various lethal methods: Shooting, electrocution, strangling, drowning. She chops off middle fingers and stashes them in a box of frozen peas. Murder unleashes Femke's boldness and creativity. After killing, she looks elated and satiated, and thwarts writer's block, writing feverishly. But she risks jeopardizing her family and career. Fury and vengeance consume Femke. The film builds to a shocking climax and conclusion.

It's fascinating to witness Femke's bloodthirsty vengeance and subversive retaliation. While I didn't find it morbidly humorous, I enjoyed the film. Yet, I wish it had delved deeper, including addressing the colossal difference between hate speech and free speech. "The Columnist" truly excels in its depiction of obsession, a scathing commentary on the damage online harassment wreaks.

"The Columnist" is available on VOD and DVD on May 11, 2021.

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