In the opening scenes of Dutch film "The Columnist" Femke Boot, a writer for daily newspaper de Volksrant ("The People's Voice"), appears on a TV chat show to appeal for online civility.
Femke has been under online attack for a column she's written criticizing Zwarte Piet, or "Black Pete," who in Dutch tradition is St. Nicholas' chief helper, who is usually depicted in blackface with large gold earrings and exaggerated lips. Unlike Santa's dark companions Krampus and Belsnickel, Pete is largely a benign figure who helps Sinterklaas distribute gifts and cookies to children on the eve and morning of St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6).
But the problem in the 21st century is that lots of Dutch people apparently enjoy putting on blackface make-up and impersonating Pete, and lots of others think this is problematic. Some of Pete's defenders argue there's nothing racist about the character, that his face has been blackened by the soot of the chimneys he scampers down. (So these days some of the Petes have a few smudges on their face rather than the full Al Jolson.)
But this is modern revisionism; in the 19th century, everyone understood that Pete was a Moor from Spain. In the old days, before he was rendered PC, it was said that Pete would swat naughty children with a stick, stuff them in his bag, and carry them back to Spain.
Femke (played by doe-eyed Katja Herbers) took on the issue of Black Pete in one of her columns, and some people viciously disagreed with her. They called her all sorts of names, wished her dead in colorful ways, accused her of pedophilia. Worse than that, they suggested she stick to writing about her divorce and her daughter. But even when she writes columns about preparing the perfect soft-boiled egg, they won't leave her alone.
Why can't we just have different opinions and be nice about it, she wonders?
A horror novelist with kohl-lined eyes named Steven Dood who has been booked to provide counter to her point responds to her Pollyannaism: So that's all you have? Another appeal for decency?
One of the many pleasant things about this movie, available for streaming through the usual digital channels, is that we don't immediately recognize this on-air confrontation as a typical romantic comedy "meet cute."
We've been cued in by the synopsis--and by the cover art of Femke in a white suit splashed with blood holding a pair of recently misused garden shears--that this is a dark comedy, one of those dry little movies that revel in gore. Going in, we know she's going to snap and take revenge on those basement-dwelling trolls. Maybe Dood will be her first victim.
But the movie, directed by Ivo Van Aart, is more nuanced than it has to be. Dood (the name translates to "death") turns out to be a sweetheart and a mensch, who relies on his mother to paint his fingernails black, while Femke ("peace") admits to a vast cynicism. He sheepishly admits to playing a part on TV to increase his book sales. She says she believes in absolutely nothing.
He advises her not to read the comments, which are vile and ugly but not unrealistic. There is no happiness in the land of comments; it is the province of the thwarted and miserable. It is never someplace you should want to go.
But she can't help herself, and wades into the misogyny and threats of sexual violence. And decides to track down her tormentors.
It's a carthartic fantasy that might appeal not just to those of us who offer our opinions professionally but to anyone who has ever encountered a jerk on the Internet. Which, these days, is probably everyone.
Social media allows us all to play at being celebrities and "thought leaders," with fans and followers who care about our adventures. Part of that experience is the opportunity to be ripped apart by anonymous people hiding behind screen names.
One of the things that I enjoy is how the film (accurately) depicts how easy it sometimes is to track down the true identities of online trolls. If you have a modicum of Internet savvy and a little bit of journalistic training, you can often find out a lot about an online antagonist in a few keystrokes.
If someone sends me an email that causes me any trepidation whatsoever, my first step is to compile a dossier on the sender. You might be surprised how much public information is floating around on you, @88odinsspawn.
Of course, the best thing to do would be to not care, which is a trick only some can manage some of the time. As Femke tells one of her victims before he becomes a victim, just because she writes a column doesn't mean she's not a person and that it doesn't sting to read hurtful things about yourself, even if you understand that the commentator is a tragic loser with low self-esteem.
Actually, there are some studies suggesting that while a lot of cyber-bullies often do suffer from low self-esteem, there are some Internet trolls who think quite highly of themselves; they're just sadists who enjoy inflicting pain on others. So the best way to deal with trolls is not--as Femke does--to appeal to their humanity (then murder them), but to do as Dood and conventional wisdom suggest. Ignore them. Don't feed the trolls, and they'll move on to a target that's more fun.
Think about what kind of state of mind you'd have to be in to send someone you don't know a nasty email or to post a ad hominem attack as a comment.
Most of you can't imagine doing that. Those of you who can--well, the object of your bile is not your problem. They aren't the reason you feel so afraid and so lonely. They aren't the reason you hate your life.
Most of them are just people, like Femke Boot pretends to be.
But bear in mind that some of them just might be homicidal sociopaths with a particular set of skills.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at email@example.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.