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Taking on the trolls in The Columnist

Timely black comedy poses questions about how we seek to express our opinions

19 March, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

THE COLUMNIST
Directed by Ivo van Aart
Certificate: 18
☆☆☆

PROTECT free speech! This rallying cry comes from across the political spectrum, with tailored caveats depending what side of the fence you are found.

This week, the government’s Policing Bill sailed through its second reading: critics say it will introduce draconian powers to halt protest.

At the same time, we have an ongoing conversation about the topic, often featuring the far right loudhailers at the Free Speech Union arguing people can say whatever they want, regardless of offence caused.

This black comedy is timely: it touches on these issues.

Femke Boot (Katja Herbers, pictured) is a columnist who is trolled disgracefully each day. Horrible messages bombard her. On top of this, she is commissioned to write a book – and is told it needs to be provocative to sell.

We meet her as she gets the rough end of a TV panel from another author, Steven Dood (Steven Death), and it is the straw that breaks her.

Unable to put up with the vitriol sent her way – and furious the police aren’t interested in the violent threats she faces – she takes matters in to her own hands.

Such pile-ons can lead to a sense that an old fashioned set-to outside a pub would be more favourable than a pithy reply. Femke thinks so – she tracks down her anonymous attackers and metes out her own form of bloody justice.

At its heart, there is a problem in what could have been a crunchy satire. Black comedies which feature ghoulish, violent deaths have been on a downward trajectory since George Romero cornered the market in silly blood and guts scenes with his zombie movies.

Here, the humour relies on the clichéd troll – a sad middle-aged man, a lonely teenage boy, living out their fantasies as keyboard warriors – getting their come-uppance in inventive ways.

To add to the tale, the columnist’s daughter, Anna (Claire Porro), is embroiled in a free speech row with her headmaster (think Ed Rooney in Ferris Bueller) over a headline in the school newspaper. It is a convenient sideshow to widen the discussion, and adds some humour, too.

Then there is Dood, who becomes the boyfriend, a character created to show that a public persona can be a mask to sell things – and that we should never stop questioning what we read and see.

As we fight these daily culture battles, an important point is often left unsaid. The right to free speech comes with important caveats: to enter into civic discourse is to understand there are parameters and rules that are vital to ensure grumbles about “de-platforming” or “cancel culture” regarding such freedom is not distorted. To express an opinion is to accept parameters in what you say and how you say it: namely, respect others and understand rights are universal. That means not being racist or misogynistic.

A well directed, well cast and well acted piece, it poses questions about how we treat each other when we seek to express our opinions.

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