Starring Craig Cobb, Jeff Schoep, Ryan Schock, Kynan Dutton, Deborah Henderson, Bobby Harper
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Documentary Film Review by Colin Lomas
Leith, a registered ghost town in North Dakota, is home to twenty people and a single shop. The almost entirely forgotten town suddenly becomes the most discussed settlement in America as renowned white supremacist Craig Cobb moves in to buy up land and property to rent out or give away to the country’s most notorious Nazi groups. Cobb’s grand plan is to become mayor of the town and create America’s first legal white-only town.
With its isolated small town backdrop and bleached, low-contrast colourisation of the stock, Welcome to Leith gives the impression of a fictional horror movie. During the winter months, you could be watching Fargo. As the feeling of threat and dread hover over the dinner table during the resident’s mealtimes, it appears to come straight from a M. Night Shyamalan nightmare.
Cobb’s appearance is part aging thrash metal guitarist, part Peter Stringfellow with jovial smiles that betray the viciousness below the surface. Dutton is an Iraq war veteran with possibly the worst Hitler moustache in history who seems to gain more sympathy from the audience than loathing. It feels that Dutton, although harbouring abhorrent beliefs, is principally concentrating on receiving approval from Cobb, who takes on an adopted father figure role. It’s Dutton’s girlfriend Deborah Henderson who is the truly chilling one, with a vicious uncompromising hatred for non-whites and a predatory growl constantly smeared across her face.
What Nichols and Walker do exceptionally shrewdly is to give both corners of the ring the time to discuss their particular point of view. What this effectively does is give access to all of the players, something rarely achieved in a documentary about extremism, and this produces a wonderful insight into evil-doer’s everyday life. Seconds after seeing Dutton performing aggressive sieg heils at a town meeting in the face of Leith’s only black resident, Bobby Harper, we see him making banana fritters in his kitchen discussing his dreams of becoming a celebrity chef. The writers realise that given enough rope, the white supremacists will happily hang themselves anyway; the exasperated cries from the Cheyenne plains are clearly audible as Dutton argues that white births are now in the minority for the first time in American history. Cobb takes a DNA test on national television to prove his racial purity, only to find out he’s fourteen percent African.
This even handedness rightfully reaps rewards towards the end of the film as they manage to obtain video footage from Deborah Henderson’s smartphone. This shows Cobb and Dutton marching through the town with loaded rifles shouting racial slurs at the residents. It is at this moment, with whispered comments such as ‘Make sure they shoot first’, the realisation sinks in that for all the talk and arrogant discrimination, there is a true threat of lethal violence involved here.
Another attractive observation is the charming naivety the original residents have to extremism. Mayor Schock freely admits to not even knowing what a white supremacist was before meeting Cobb. It is refreshing then to observe how a community can pull together to defend one another’s rights, and you get a stimulating insight into the way America works at ground level as the council try to work around the first amendment excuses Cobb obsesses on so well. When does one’s right to freedom of speech become another’s illegal hate-crime discrimination? The town’s council at one point pass a new law requiring every living accommodation to have plumbed sewage, in one clean sweep making the majority of Cobb’s rental properties, housing the white supremacists, illegal. This is a fascinating move to counteract Cobb’s completely, and astonishingly, legal Nazi hate-speech and threats of gun violence.
Welcome to Leith is a terrifying yet fascinating account of a dark recess of American society and culture. It is made with clarity and observed impartiality and stands out impressively against previous documentaries of a similar ilk.