'Welcome to Leith': Film Review
Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's documentary chronicles the tumultuous events that followed a notorious white supremacist moving into a tiny North Dakota town.
Feeling more like a taut Hollywood thriller than a documentary, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's Welcome to Leith chronicles the disruption caused when a notorious white supremacist moves into a tiny North Dakota town with the intention of taking it over. Grippingly depicting the ensuing tensions that constantly threaten to spill over into violence — even while raising discomfiting questions about the scope of First Amendment rights — the film is a nail-biter from start to finish.
Given an amazing degree of access to participants on both sides, the filmmakers detail how Craig Cobb, who proudly declares, "I'm one of the most famous racists in the world," moved into the 1.24-square-mile ghost town of Leith, population 24. At first he's regarded as just an eccentric, nasty old man, but his malicious intentions become obvious when he begins buying up cheap plots of land, some with houses in varying states of disrepair, eventually accumulating 12 in all. His self-professed goal: to sell them at bargain-basement prices to his fellow members of the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi organization described by one member as a "white civil rights activist group," and to take over the town's government and establish a haven for the group's members.
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Needless to say, the arrival of Cobb and a younger, equally venomous cohort, Kynan Dutton, incites no small degree of alarm among the town's residents, especially when the new arrivals proudly hoist Nazi flags and others from various "Aryan nations." The citizens, including a lone black man, rally together in opposition, only to suffer such threats as having their and their loved ones' names, photos, and addresses posted on racist websites.
It isn't until Cobb and Dutton parade down a road toting loaded rifles that the police are able to muster up a charge of "terrorizing," for which the two men are arrested and held without bail. That the resolution of the story is ultimately anti-climactic — save for a cathartic burning of several Cobb-affiliated houses after they're condemned because of a lack of running water and sewage systems — is a testament that life is messier than fiction.
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Cobb, who claims that he was "stalked" by the Southern Poverty Law Center (which indeed monitored his activities and first publicized this tale), proves a disturbingly charismatic and savvy figure. One of the film's highlights is a clip from his appearance on a television talk show with a black female host, who gleefully tells him that his DNA test revealed that he is "14 percent sub-Saharan African." His grinning, seemingly good-natured response is even more chilling than if he had erupted in anger.
Production: No Weather Productions, The Cinemart, Sundial Pictures
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Producers: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker, Jenner Furst, Joey Carey, Joshua Woltermann
Executive producers: Julia Willoughby Nason, Stefan Nowicki, Sally Jo Fifer
Director of photography: Michael Beach Nichols
Editors: Christopher K. Walker, Michael Beach Nichols, Josua Wolterman
Composer: T. Griffin
Not rated, 86 minutes