SXSW Review: Welcome to Leith


Welcome to Leith

White supremacists move to a very small North Dakota town and start buying property, encouraging their friends to do the same so they can eventually "take over" the town. You can picture the resulting documentary -- the interviews with town members, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the tension about how this potentially explosive situation will end. But you might not predict that Welcome to Leith would skillfully show you that the situation is not as clear cut as it sounds, and show the poisonous side effects of not just hate, but fear.

The film opens with an ominous 911 call -- a woman in Leith believes herself to be in peril from men roaming the area with guns. But how did matters get to that point? Welcome to Leith backtracks to show us. It begins when Craig Cobb, whom the SPLC calls "one of the top ten white supremicists in America," buys property in the town of Leith -- three miles, 24 residents, one bar. Cobb is part of a group called the Creators and has a history of publishing personal identifiable information about people who cross him ("doxxing" before that was even a word).

After Cobb buys property in Leith -- at an unbelievably low cost -- he encourages other white supremacist group leaders to buy land there and join him, with a goal of taking over the town entirely. He donates a tract of land to Tom Metzger, founder of the White Aryan Resistance. You can guess what the neighbors think -- especially the town's lone African-American resident, whom Cobb approaches about selling land. Imagine how you'd feel to see a swastika painted on a sign on your neighbor's property. The town leaders decide to change water and sewer ordinances in a way that could possibly drive the unwanted new residents out of town again.

And that's where things get complex. White supremacy is reprehensible, and some things Cobb has said publicly are downright menacing -- but he doesn't actually break the law in Leith, at least, not up until the day he and another man decide to start "patrolling the area" with guns in hand, a chilling sequence. And even then, the extent to which they actually broke the law is arguable, especially in light of all the open-carry demonstrations around the country these days. They're harassed by the neighbors, their property vandalized -- and the question is, is that harassment justified? SPLC can show you a long list of heinous crimes white supremacists have committed -- judging by the past, this scenario could have gone spectacularly wrong. But filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker refuse to give their subjects halos and pitchforks.

Welcome to Leith is not shy about showing the extent of the hate speech that Cobb and his cronies spread online or in speeches. It get ugly and the pure venom and vehemence often made me flinch. Independent Lens is going to have its work cut out for it in making some of these scenes suitable for PBS broadcast -- it's necessary to hear the language used but it is definitely not network-friendly. The Leith town-hall meeting scenes make my worst neighborhood association experiences look like a Sunday-school picnic.

However, the documentary also includes candid interviews with Cobb and the young married couple with kids who join Cobb in moving to Leith. No matter who they are and what they believe, the people in this documentary are people, not stereotypes, not portrayed in a deliberately unflattering way.

Welcome to Leith is a fascinating look at the way a frightening and ominous situation evolved and eventually resolved, and the people involved on all sides. It would make an excellent double-feature with The Overnighters, the Drafthouse Films documentary about a small town's reactions to a ministry that gives itself over to helping the homeless. How do we react when a feared Other comes to town? Welcome to Leith gives us a mirror, and not a flattering one, either.