Welcome to Leith (First Run Features, NR)

Critical opinion has been overwhelmingly positive for Welcome to Leith, but I found it unsatisfying, with far too many check-your-watch stretches.

Welcome to Leith

In 2012, Craig Cobb moved to the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota. That in itself might be noteworthy, as Leith had a population of about 24 residents at the time, but it’s far more significant because of Cobb’s reason for the move. In fact, he was buying up properties with the intent of moving some of his Neo-Nazi, white supremacist supporters to the town so they could take over the local government.

And then what?, you may ask. We don’t know, because Cobb doesn’t appear to be much of a deep thinker or a planner, but the residents of Leith at least were not in favor of his plan. The conflict drew national attention, in no small part because a similar scenario could play out in any number of small towns across the United States. Someone with money buys a number of homes or lots, perfectly legally, then uses their ownership as a tool to move in like-minded individuals and thus take over the town, disempowering people who may have lived there for generations.

Welcome to Leith, a documentary by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, captures the conflict between Cobb’s followers (well, one of them anyway—besides Cobb, Kynan Dutton gets most of the screen time) and the town’s residents in you-are-there style, with lots of shots of the peaceful countryside interspersed among footage of town meetings, interviews with town residents (one of whom is black) and neo-Nazis, and shots of townspeople going about their daily lives. The impression thus produced is that of ordinary people in an ordinary town whose lives were abruptly interrupted by an invasion of people who, judging by the bizarre ways they present themselves in this documentary, might as well have come from Mars.

I’m not an expert on white supremacy movements, but one constant from what I have seen of the American version is that their members are not superior to anyone. In fact, this type of movement seems to have a genius for attracting idiots and losers of all stripes, which raises the issue of how they can claim to be members of a superior race. Do they ever look in the mirror? As someone states plainly in Welcome to Leith, the only reason these guys are dangerous at all is became they have lots of guns and are ready to use them against people whom they feel threaten their cause.

What’s lacking in Welcome to Leith is information and context—like who are Cobb and Dutton, what do they live on, and are they truly the idiots they appear to be or are they crazy like foxes? I’d also like to know more about the flag collection Dutton plants so proudly outside his home (he says they represent “formerly white nations” and gives the name of a few, but that raises as many questions as it answers, like who gets to determine what qualifies as a “white nation” and when does such a nation become “formerly white”). A quick Google search turns up some interesting information—Cobb apparently comes from a wealthy background, for instance, and finances at least some of his activities from an inheritance. Also—he worked with some Estonian white supremacist organizations, before he was deported and banned from the country, which explains the presence of the Estonian flag among Dutton’s collection. I can imagine the Estonian government issuing a proclamation stating that they have nothing to do with this nutcase and could he please stop dishonoring their flag by associating it with his cause.

Critical opinion has been overwhelmingly positive for Welcome to Leith, but I found it unsatisfying, with far too many check-your-watch stretches. It’s more of a mood piece, with some beautiful camerawork (and some unnecessary affectations, like the swooping shots of the countryside early in the film), than a straightforward issues documentary, and the ratio of information to screen time is pretty low. Still, using the principle that you should evaluate a film in terms of whether it accomplished its own goals, I’d have to say that Nichols and Walker succeeded.

Extras on the disc include “Separatist,” a New York Times op-doc (4 min.) directed by Nichols, one extended scene (2 min.) and one deleted scene (2 min.), a video interview with Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center (6 min.), and biographies of the filmmakers. | Sarah Boslaugh

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