‘Welcome to Leith’ a chilling addition to Fargo Film Fest

by Anthony Schnabel

schnabelan@mnstate.edu

In a tiny, once-forgotten place, shouts and heavy stomps echo off the sides of run-down houses. The noise is frightening and unfamiliar to the town’s residents, who are generally quiet and reserved. Two men patrol the streets, their long rifles stretching above their silhouettes.

The unlikely scene takes place in Leith, North Dakota, and is captured in a documentary directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker. Their film follows Craig Cobb, an infamous neo-Nazi who moved into the tiny prairie town in the summer of 2013.

In the film, the 16 residents of Leith’s three square miles are taken aback when a newcomer moves into their township and goes on a real estate binge. At first, they brush it off as an outsider looking to profit from the nearby oil boom, only to discover the beady-eyed stranger was not interested in the prospect of wealth at all. Rather, he was planning a “takeover” of their once-peaceful community, purchasing 12 plots of land and proclaiming them white supremacist territory.

Not long after Cobb’s intentions are revealed, Cobb announces his plans to bring in numerous well-known neo-Nazi leaders to live among Leith’s residents and, eventually, use their majority vote to throw out longtime  public officeholders. Leith was to become a haven for white supremacists, but the town’s existing residents, mostly farmers and ranchers, weren’t leaving without a fight.

The resistance, led by Leith’s mayor, Ryan Schock, needed to develop a scheme to force Cobb and his followers out of Leith — a task easier said than done in what was now a climate of fear and intimidation. Representatives of the National Socialist Front used armed patrols and propaganda to push residents to their breaking points.

Luckily, the city council found a hole in Cobb’s plan when they realized none of his properties had adequate water or sewage setups. Still, legal protections and the town’s lack of law enforcement made convicting Cobb for his acts a difficult task. Free speech and gun rights, it turns out, can protect even the most detestable people.

“Welcome to Leith”’s chilling on-site footage and interviews are still surprisingly objective. The film’s creators needed to maintain a neutral stance to best preserve their relationship with Cobb.

The film’s standout issue its inconsistency in capturing striking moments. Though some scenes evoke suspense and nail-biting tension, others are comprised of relatively still shots of propaganda or Cobb’s home.

Still, the film’s ability to paint Cobb as the horrifying character he, thouroughly addressing his articulate, yet dangerous, agenda, makes for an intense exposition. But the lack of resolution to the events in Leith leaves the viewer with an empty feeling.

The attempt to paint the passing of property laws in Leith as a victory for its citizens was not significant enough to resolve the film. It wasn’t until Cobb and his right-hand man, Kynan Dutton, were arrested for terrorizing that residents of Leith felt somewhat secure.

Nevertheless, the anti-climatic ending was made up for in the film’s other pivotal points.

A highlight clip of Cobb from his appearance on the “The Trisha Goddard Show” was included, for example. In the episode,  he sets out to prove his all-white heritage, only to be dumbfounded when  DNA results show he is 14 percent Sub-Saharan African. A quick, good-natured response disparaged Cobb across the Internet, though that’s probably something that doesn’t bother him much.

“Welcome to Leith” received the Bill Snyder Award for best feature documentary at the Fargo Film Festival, where it was recently shown, and is available on iTunes. The documentary thriller airs on PBS Monday, April 4.

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