The Columnist (De Kuthoer) first published by Little White Lies
“If people don’t agree with me, they’re allowed to be angry, they’re allowed to curse me, fight against me, with every argument they can come up with. But they aren’t allowed to silence me.”
Anna Boot (Claire Porro), a third year in high school, is on the warpath. After her headmaster (Harry van Rijthoven) has her removed from the school paper, ostensibly for using inappropriate language while more probably because she has been criticising his merger plans for the school, she begins a free speech campaign that tests the very limits of what it is possible to say. This film, however, is not really Anna’s story, any more than the words (quoted above) that she reads out at a benefit she has organised are her own. Rather they belong to her mother Femke (Katja Herbers), a well-known columnist and liberal who is engaged in her own war – and not just one of words – against the army of rightists and misogynists who bombard her with hate messages and even death threats online. The original Dutch title De Kuthoer (literally ‘the cunt whore’) reflects the kind of slur with which Femke is regularly tarred – and if the English title, The Columnist, seems to practise the sort of censorship against which Femke and her daughter rail, look closer and you will see that the most offensive term of the original title is still cunningly preserved within it.
While Femke’s new boyfriend, the crime novelist Steven Death (Bram van der Kelen), has cultivated gothic dress and a devilish demeanour for his public, in fact he is a good-natured, well-mannered pussycat (whose real name is Erik Flinterman). Femke is the opposite: she may advocate being ‘nice’ on social media, she may give off the image of being sweet, homely and ‘woke’ (she recently wrote a controversial article condemning as racist the Dutch custom of blacking up as Zwarte Piet), but deep down she harbours a sharp, illiberal anger which finds expression in her vicious feud against her virtual bullies. The accidental killing of a noisy, reactionary neighbour leads to a series of altogether less accidental murders which buoy her mood and (temporarily) end her writer’s block. While at first the viewer might cheer to see incels and cybertrolls getting their comeuppance, Femke – who rapidly loses any justification for her actions and from the start collects fingers from her victims like a psychopath’s trophies – makes for an extremely uncomfortable figure of identification.
Femke’s tragedy is that she becomes in practice the very opposite of what she preaches: someone who shuts down the conversation and leaves those with whom she disagrees permanently silenced. Yet from her rampage against free speech’s uglier side, director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst weave the darkest satire. In essence their scenario pushes at the same boundaries between what is acceptable and unacceptable as Anna’s campaign, even as Femke’s vendetta shifts the argument from merely discursive, theoretical terms to the realm of the viscerally physical. Still, it is all just fictive banter, no harm done, right? Right?
Anticipation: I can relate to columnists
Enjoyment: I can relate to vengeful psychokillers
In Retrospect: Fucks with the free speech debate like a cunt