SXSW 2015: ‘Welcome to Leith’ weaves a bizarre and enthralling tale

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Welcome to Leith 
Written and directed by Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker
USA, 2015

The story at the center of Welcome to Leith is so surreal that it’s hard to believe you’re watching a documentary. When Craig Cobb first moved to the minuscule town of Leith, North Dakota – population 24 – residents thought he was just an unassuming old man who enjoyed his privacy. In reality, he was a neo-Nazi planning to buy up parcels of land and turn the town into a refuge for white supremacists. Welcome to Leith packages this strange tale in the form of a riveting war film, with the Leith residents battling against Cobb in an attempt to retake their formerly serene hamlet.

The film shuffles through an expansive cast of fascinating characters. First, there is the mayor of Leith, Ryan Schock, a no-nonsense cattle wrangler who works to keep the hostility between Cobb and the residents under control, even as tempers reach their boiling point. Then there are the various townspeople, primarily represented by Lee Cook and his wife, who moved to the area to recover from a profound personal loss. Now they face even greater adversity, as the depravity of the outside world – something they tried so desperately to escape – threatens to intrude upon their safe haven. Arguably the most intriguing character in Leith is Cobb himself. In spite of his deeply rooted hatreds, he is not presented as a vituperative imbecile. On the contrary, he is soft-spoken and eloquent, and if were not for the scraggly beard and Doc Brown haircut, he would look utterly ordinary. The normality of his appearance belies Cobb’s capacity to commit brutal actions in the name of racial purity, making him all the more unsettling of a figure.

It does not take long for the situation in Leith to fall under the national spotlight, and directors Michaeltumblr_nj5mgxd4kB1u2k03ko1_500
Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker expand the scope of the film to accommodate their ever-growing narrative. They secure interviews with the president of the National Socialist Party of America, who bought a parcel of land from Cobb, and follow the Southern Poverty Law Center’s investigation into Cobb’s criminal history. They even obtain first-hand accounts from a white supremacist family, who have answered Cobb’s call and set up home in Leith. After a certain point, Welcome to Leith becomes bloated due its extensive cast, though this is not entirely the directors’ fault. After all, when they first began the project, they couldn’t possibly have known how large this bizarre tale would grow.

Though overstuffed at times, Welcome to Leith still proves to be an entrancing documentary. Nichols and Walker are largely strong storytellers, able to weave an assortment of varied perspectives into a single mesmerizing text. By the end of the film, the town of Leith embodies a number of different places. For the townspeople, it is a rural sanctuary in desperate need of protection. For Cobb and his merry band of neo-Nazis, it is a shocking form of utopia. And for viewers, it is the foundation for an intense and thought-provoking cinematic work.

— Jacob Carter

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