It’s a small town in an almost nondescript kind of Americana. All 24 members of the community know and look out for one another. Visitors don’t usually come around, but that’s okay. Their denizens want it this way. Welcome to the small town of Leith.
A nice enough stranger takes an interest in their town. He quickly buys up tracts of land and becomes one of the biggest stakeholders in the area. He’s odd to the townsfolk, but perhaps anyone who’s an outsider rubs them the wrong way. But this particular stranger, Craig Cobb, is not just a dowdy loner. He’s a white supremacist instigating an Aryan coup in the American heartland.
Welcome to Leith opens at the height of tension in the small North Dakota town, where Cobb and his gun-toting foot soldier-in-training Kynan Dutton once roamed the streets to stake their claim in the community. This leads to several run-ins with the law, scuffles between neighbors, and tearful arguments throughout local living rooms. What recourse do the locals have to oust the interloper?
The answer: shockingly, not much. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker do well to let the story unfurl itself. They let the frustrated citizens vent and yell, once-hidden emotions now laid bare. The filmmakers earned the trust of their subjects enough to be welcomed into strangers’ homes—Nichols and Walker capture the moments when parents start to cry, feeling helpless to protect their children from Cobb’s hate speech.
The movie serves as an anthropological study of a small town and what happens when a caustic outside force comes barreling in. Fortunately for Leith, the town’s plight drew national attention with media coverage and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which mobilized against Cobb’s grassroots intentions of colonizing a place for white supremacists. Incredibly, the directors also gain relatively close access to Cobb and his comrade Dutton, both determined to tell their side of the story—or perhaps they cooperated with the filmmakers in the hopes of more headlines.
Part of what’s so chilling about the documentary is how its antagonist is unlike the lead-headed delinquent stereotype one would associate with a neo-Nazi. Instead, the soft-spoken and calculating Cobb brings decades’ worth of civil disruption and domestic terrorism to the unassuming Leith. For his part, Dutton, who brings along his wife and children as they set up their new, whites-only utopia, looks like an influenced pup at Cobb’s beck and call. It’s with that defense he’s able to rejoin his family faster than Cobb upon their ultimate arrest for disturbing the peace—the frightening show of force that opens the movie.
Although the events in Leith took place back in 2012, it’s hard not to think of the current news cycle that wasn’t a factor when the film premiered at Sundance. From Donald Trump’s daily racist rhetoric to the Kim Davis marriage license kerfuffle or the hateful actions greeting refugees at the border, the same intolerant language Cobb used to build himself up is terribly common the world over. There’s an uncomfortable shift when watching Welcome to Leith as the racist aggression loses its coded language and permeates the open air.
Welcome to Leith poses the question of where tolerance and intolerance begin. How quiet do we get when the Dutton family espouses their beliefs as “white separatists” around their young children? How do we feel about individual rights when the will of that individual is essentially to terrorize a community and repurpose their homes for hatred? For its eerie sense of timeliness and excellent storytelling, Welcome to Leith is one of the must-watch documentaries of 2015.
Directors: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Writers: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer based in Brooklyn. You can usually find her outside of a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter.