Film Reviews

REVIEW: Welcome to Leith

Hot Docs 2015


USA, 86 min.
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker
International Premiere

One of the most viscerally terrifying documentaries in recent memory, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith, maintains a patiently frightening and deeply nuanced look at a year long power struggle between small town Americans and loathsome outsiders determined to take over a local government, and eventually an entire region.

In May of 2012, white supremacist Craig Cobb moved to the sleepy hamlet of Leith, North Dakota, a town with a population of just over twenty that hadn’t seen anything close to a boom since the start of the 20th century. Cobb began buying up local properties at an alarming rate, and then, via the Internet, advertised the town as a potential new enclave for white socialists, neo-Nazis, and like-minded confederates. If Cobb were to get more than twenty people to relocate to Leith, he would effectively overthrow the local government and establish a white power community.

Everything Cobb does is technically legal. There are no grounds or precedents stopping his land purchases, and the flagrant bullying of local residents—-including a black man married to a white woman and Lee Cook, a family man whose daughter was tragically murdered—-comes protected under first amendment rights. The residents seem powerless to stop the onslaught of hate filled rhetoric, only finding hope via the help of outside social justice organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nichols and Walker deftly balance the malaise of Leith’s residents with an impartial, arms-length look at Cobb and his inner circle of supporters. Spending several months on both sides of the battle, Nichols and Walker build an effective amount of sympathy for Leith’s plight by letting the actions of others speak for themselves.

The Nationalist Socialist Party of America supports Cobb’s efforts as a heroic act of Aryan pride. Troubled, young Iraqi war veteran Kynan Dutton, who sports a Hitler moustache and adorns his desolate front yard with the flags of “fallen Aryan nations,” proudly patrols the streets of Leith alongside Cobb with high powered rifles to stave off “harassment.” Cobb messianically proclaims himself to be “the most famous racist in the world.” None of these statements are technically wrong given their points of view and heinous white privilege, but Nichols and Walker let the residents of Leith speak for themselves in opposition to the hatred infecting their community. The words spoken by Cobb and his cronies are uncomfortable and undoctored, allowing these bigoted men and women to allot enough rope to hang themselves. Or perhaps most frighteningly, strengthen their case for a new world order.

By the time Cobb and company have almost been coerced into criminal activity and the town’s people attempt to literally burn away the memories of an unfortunate time in the town’s history, Nicholas and Walker have captured a rightfully uneasy document about the persistence of racism and the constant reopening of scars that will never heal.

Hot Docs 2015 Screenings
Thu, Apr 30 1:30 PM
TIFF Bell Lightbox

Click here for more of POV’s coverage of the 2015 Hot Docs Festival!

Andrew Parker is almost a twenty year veteran when it comes to film criticism. Previously, he was the Film and Performing Arts Editor for the website Dork Shelf, and his work has appeared in NOW Magazine, The Boston Globe, t.o. night, Exclaim, Reader’s Digest, The Onion AV Club, and plenty of other places that you probably have/haven’t heard of. He also occasionally pops up on TV, but blink and you might miss him. Raised in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, he has called Toronto home for the past decade.

View all articles by Andrew Parker »