Maybe this is too wonky for those outside of film nerdom to care, but 2020 has cemented a fundamental truth about festivals—international films are increasingly the MVP of this scene. Sure, at the highest of high profile events (Cannes, TIFF, Sundance, Telluride), you can reliably get a sneak peek at the titles showing up at the next Oscars ceremony. But for the rest of us who maybe only make it to one or two of these things that tend to be local affairs (shout out to Austin Film Festival and Fantastic Fest), a lot of the most interesting stuff available comes from abroad. Russia’s Zoology (now on Amazon Prime) took How Stella Got Her Groove Back and gave it a dystopian sci-fi setting in 2016. Sweden’s Border (streaming on Hulu) found a fantastic approach to examine national borders and how we treat others in 2018, and it played some of the same events as the gripping filmmaking of Denmark’s The Guilty (also on Hulu before the US version with Jake Gyllenhaal happens). And last year, anyone even remotely following the film calendar was aware of Bong Joon-Ho’s masterful Parasite (Hulu, again, really getting it done) rising up from the festival scene to the Oscars stage.
Our year of COVID-19 may only be strengthening this trend. Big US feature films with hopes for a theatrical run seem hesitant to participate in festivals that exist only as VOD. Small shorts looking to make a splash and find a deal for full-length productions have hit pause, too, preferring to save their “premiere” bargaining chip for a time when film festivals can bring industry folks together in person once more. But international films, some of which have already enjoyed theatrical runs in their home countries (last year or during a better pandemic response), simply come to festivals to find new audiences and maybe upgrade for a US theatrical run or a wider-reaching streaming service deal. That’s still happening in 2020. And in a year where US film fans may be starved for new titles to get excited about, we all need to hope the Netherlands’ The Columnist soon transitions from the festival scene to your preferred at-home screen.
Talk about relatable
Dutch newspaper columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, Westworld) writes about the toxic aspects of online culture, which means anonymous haters on Twitter and Facebook or in comment threads just love her. All that bile seems to grow exponentially with each of Boot’s new columns or appearances. “We are all people, and we shouldn’t forget that,” Boot says while appearing as an analyst on some 24-hour news channel’s “Twitter: A Blessing or a Curse?” special. “Well, we also shouldn’t forget to recycle or to eat our vegetables,” responds her counterpart, a conservative fiction writer named Stephen Dood (Bram van der Kelen). His work, naturally, seems to often involve an awful lot of murder and violence against women.
You can probably guess the response: Why do they still allow untalented women on TV? I hope they rough up your daughter, @femkeboot. If @FemkeBook gets AIDS, I’ll organize a party, deal? Boot manages to shake it off—unfortunately this isn’t a new occurrence—but this may just be the tip of a larger online garbage iceberg. Boot recently sold a book idea on online culture, and the first draft due date looms ahead of the publisher’s goal to release before Christmas. Her publisher wants more online social promotion, more appearances on TV or in radio. “You’re not on the talk show for fun, you’re a brand,” the publisher says. “You should’ve mentioned the book… we need a stir for it. ‘Next Christmas’ is practically ‘This Christmas,’ which is practically now.”
Understandably, all the pressure weighs on Boot. She struggles to get her writing done without checking her mentions out of some morbid curiosity. And on top of that, it seems like her neighbors constantly have house work happening to disrupt her peaceful writing silence. But while doom scrolling one day at the grocery, Boot recognizes a familiar face—her noisy neighbor, Arjen, happens to be among the anonymous mob trolling her. As she does some amateur sleuthing on his other social profiles, she sees Trump memes and links to her work with comments like ‘I’m ashamed to live in a country like this.” The more Arjen continues to be a different person to her face—Want some leftover ham, Femke?—as he loudly wraps up his new fence, Femke gets increasingly fed up. So later that day, she takes an axe to the fence—a move that feels surprisingly therapeutic. Even better, the decision seems to settle Boot down and allow her to get some real writing done. So when she next hears some banging from the roof and finds Arjen working on shingles up there, well, she has a book to finish, right?
Sorry Tenet, but…
The Columnist may be the best film I’ve come across in 2020 to date; at the very least, it’s the most enjoyable and entertaining. Director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst have a clever story, a tightly wrapt plot, and a final act where I didn’t guess the outcome in advance. Toss onto that Herbers maintaining the perfect tone for Boot (quiet and calm on the outside, explosive exhaustion when confronting her trolls, and a constant inner rage shown through performance stillness and restraint) and some highly relevant present-day themes, and this would easily be the first 2020 movie I’d recommend to anyone asking for something new to watch. (The Netherlands communities where everything takes place being nice to look at mid-quarantine doesn’t hurt, either.)
Early on, the film quickly shows itself to be a thoughtful commentary on modern existence, not some one-note, B-movie slasher flick. Boot’s mustachioed villain Dood, for instance, outright admits he plays a character the second time these two cross paths (“I’m afraid I’m more cynical than you about TV,” he says. “You were there to change the world; I was there to sell a book.”) Soon enough, he becomes a likable ally to Femke who goes as far as repeatedly sharing perhaps effective advice for online life in 2020 (#NeverReadTheComments, to start). “I think it’s very healthy,” Dood says about writing violence. “A lot of people have those thoughts, most people don’t dare admit it. I have ways of letting off steam… video games like Doom and stuff. So I know what you mean that everyone has hate inside.” Or, here’s Dood about spending a lot of time on social media: “Have you been on Twitter again? Don’t do that, they’re just idiots with delusions of grandeur.”
So even if he approaches mass TV in bad faith, Dood gets it. The real villains of The Columnist are instead those who don’t: the jerks who join in the digital pile-ons to “be part of the crowd” or because “it’s just a bit of fun” and all the people in Boot’s life who dismiss enduring all that crap as no big deal. “If it was really all that bad with the death threats and all, you’d have gone to the police and not a talk show,” says one “friend.” “It’s just the Internet, it’s not real,” says another.
The Columnist makes it clear that free speech at large is a good thing despite the prevalence of such idiocy. In fact, one of the film’s B-plots involves Boot’s daughter, Anna, encountering a staunchly pro-censorship principal while working at her school paper. (This happens in a more amusing way than that sentence may indicate; swearing is involved.) But speech intended to hurt others does not come without consequence no matter how much the original messenger insists they didn’t mean it that way. We see it all the time IRL as people get fired for idiocy online. This film just turns up the dial to 11.
“Why can’t we have different opinions and be nice about it?” Boot lectures when confronting one of her trolls. “I’m a person—if you call me a whore, a stupid bitch, a pedo, I feel that. It keeps me awake. Do you get it, Tarik? Other people have feelings. I’m not a Nazi or a psychopath. The fact I have a different political opinion doesn’t make me a monster. I’m a woman who writes for a newspaper.”
It’s not always clear whether The Columnist views Femke as a hero (someone cleaning up, albeit coldly and bloodily, the gutter sludge that exists anonymously online) or a victim (someone pushed into madness by an unrelenting wave of verbal abuse on addictive platforms). I am not a woman simply existing online, and your understanding-mileage may vary if you can more directly relate. But The Columnist definitely does not portray Femke as a villain or ask viewers to sympathize with the victims whose hate-spewing went previously unchecked. Instead, this Tarantino-y revenge fantasy with over-the-top comic violence recognizes the evil and bile that sits at the center of a nameless, faceless mass of blue eggs or random handles saying the worst things their deficient brains can come up with. The most toxic of online trolling showcases a complete disregard for the well-being of others and an inability to empathize even slightly with someone who differs from you.
In contrast, viewers of The Columnist will most likely sympathize with all the middle fingers awaiting them in this film.
The Columnist continues to play the US (VOD) festival scene (we saw it as part of Fantasia Fest 2020). You can access the film from October 14 to October 25 as part of the Chicago Film Festival, for instance. While we haven’t seen news of a US release or a streaming platform deal, the film is also available on the Netherlands’ streaming platform, NPO Start+.
Listing image by Ivo van Aart