The reason I like documentaries so much is that you can’t shy away from what is depicted on the screen, you can’t suspend your disbelief because it is happening or has really happened. Some docs are whimsical and can delight you with the beauties of life. Others, the exact opposite. Welcome to Leith happens to fall in the latter crowd, although don’t let that take away from how good this film is.
Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker are unbelievably able to situate themselves right in the middle of a shitstorm…in the middle of Nowhere, North Dakota (really, Leith). When Craig Cobb comes to town, he goes about unnoticed, busy snapping up pieces of property in the small town. To what end you might ask? Well, Cobb just so happens to be one of the foremost white supremacists in the country and he is doing his best to buy enough property to settle his racists buddies in town so that they can take over Leith politically by using their votes to oust the City Council and sitting Mayor Ryan Schock. And why would they do that, you ask again? So that they can set up what I later learned is called a PLE, or Pioneer Little Europe, or really just a town that is all white and non-Jew, non-Christian where they are free to propagate their ridiculous and, frankly, dangerous views.
Nichols and Walker do such a wonderful of balancing the perspective of the concerned local townsfolk who don’t want anything to do with Cobb and his fellow bigots being in Leith with the viewpoint of Cobb and his cronies, sickening as it is. The directors are able to capture the growing concern for the citizens of Leith for their own safety as Cobb himself falls into more and more of an uncontrolled, hate-filled spiral. The interplay between the rights of the citizens of Leith and the rights of the racists to exist in town is fascinating to watch play out amid all of the legal wranglings by both sides to allow their ways of life to continue.
What the directors do best here is really letting Cobb and the other white supremacists featured hang themselves with their own words and actions. It is hard not to squirm each time Cobb and his cohort comes on screen spouting their hateful rhetoric. And perhaps the best thing is, they willingly contributed to this. The directors were able to use footage shot by the racists and weave it into the film, so in essence they co-directed portions of the film. The score that composers Brendan Canty and Tim Hecker created added a nice layer to the film. This film is quite scary (if you ask me) and the score really helps reiterate that, allowing the directors to not have to show tons more heavy handed interviews with Cobb and his little posse. I will say that the final shot of Cobb in this film is one of the most satisfying of any documentary I’ve ever seen and incredibly indicative of the how most Americans feel about racists and their fucked up agendas.
This is an endlessly enthralling, enraging and interesting film that really encapsulates the complexity of interpreting the First Amendment. Walker and Nichols have woven together a really important film that gives relatively equal balance to both arguments, something that I can’t imagine was an easy thing to do. The film is chock full of poignant moments (none as good as the reveal of Cobb‘s DNA profile) that show the extremes that both sides will go to protect their rights. While the subject matter is hard to digest in parts (because of the nature of it, not the lack of quality in how it is shown), the filmmakers do a dynamic job in getting the points of both parties across and that is why this film is so successful. I would firmly put this documentary beside K. Ryan Jones‘ Fall from Grace about the Westboro Baptist Church as a film that is able to take a subject that is really vomit-inducing about some really disgusting people and allow said disgusting people to do all the dirty work themselves. And as gross as I think Cobb and his lot are, it makes for fascinating cinema to watch them try to work the system and ultimately fail.
This film make its US theatrical debut tonight at the IFC Center in New York City. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher Walker will be present at the 7:45 screening tonight and tomorrow. The film is being distributed by First Run Features.
Get there, people!
Here’s the trailer: