Leith is a small town in Grant County, North Dakota. Forgotten and dilapidated, it looks like – as one out-of-towner notes – “B-roll to the Walking Dead”. There are only 24 residents and one business open; the Mayor Ryan Schock drives the school bus and when a particularly numerous family relocate there, they joke that they increased the town’s population by 25% in one go. So when a quiet old man buys a house the residents are pleased to have a new neighbour: one even hopes that he might be a marriage prospect for her widowed mother. Craig Cobb is a bit of a loner, with his Bill Hickok beard and his baseball cap, but then again if it’s seclusion you want, then Leith is the perfect town.
Cobb begins to quietly buy up plots of land and empty buildings around the town on the cheap and no one is any the wiser until the Southern Poverty Law Centre reveals that Cobb is actually a white supremacist and his plan, as he posts on various White Power websites, is to take over Leith and create a community of like-minded racists. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith plays out almost as a thriller in its first half. The sense of imminent threat and mind-boggling hatred increases as Cobb finds an Iraq veteran to move in with his wife and children. Sporting a Hitler moustache, Kynan Dutton has the weedy frame and rat-like face that belies his claim to Master Race status – carrying on the tradition of such beauties as Goebbels, Eichmann, Goering, Hitler…well, pretty much all of them. Cobb also gifts land to the National Socialist Front, the largest such organisation in the US, and a rally is held where anti-racists and town members angrily confront the interlopers.
Cobb’s plan to gain a political majority is stymied however by the energetic response of the mayor and the rest of the town’s tiny population. The meetings of the municipality become fraught as Cobb films everything on his lap top and taunts one resident with the death of his daughter. As part of the intimidation, Cobb and Dutton post personal details of their opponents online and patrol the roads with their automatic weapons, the latter providing the authorities with an excuse to finally deal with them. Nichols and Walker, however, have the nerve to delve deeper than the most obvious binaries here. They exploit their access to both parts of the argument to turn a passive stare toward the neo-Nazis and in the second half of the film this gaze pays dividends. Cobb is obviously an intelligent man and his calm and quiet pronouncements are almost hypnotically convincing, until you unpick the genocidal implications. At one point he refers to his shocking language as a consciously applied method of waking “the limbic part of the brain” and how the conspiracies of the Jews can only be solved by “dissolving their molecules”.
It’s the placid euphemism which echoes down the years from the Wannsee Conference. Dutton plays the Igor to Cobb’s Frankenstein, a blackly comic character who has ambitions to publish a cook book – “Aryans do normal things too”. As his son recites the ‘n-words’ he has learned at school, you can sense his disappointment – and perhaps that of the filmmakers too – as he plumps for “nickel” rather than the obvious racist choice. And herein lies one of the problems with the film. Mayor Schock notes “You don’t stop in the middle of a fight”, but that is where the film leaves the residents; unsure of their victory, fearful of consequences and with Cobb lurking in the background. Some of the images seek for a closure that just isn’t there. Cobb is seen putting his racist literature in a bin bag, but is he reforming or just moving? Likewise, the townsfolk bulldoze one of Cobb’s properties and set fire to the ruins, but the papers are still in the hands of various white supremacist groups and individuals. Given recent docs that have gone for the long haul, one wonders whether Walker might have been advised to have stuck around a little longer.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty