“Welcome to Leith” is a gripping you-are-there portrait of a community under siege: the titular tiny North Dakota burg that, a couple of years ago, suddenly found itself unhappily chosen as a suitably cheap, isolated “planned community” for some of the United States’ most notorious white supremacists. The conflict between different notions of freedom, law-enforcement problems, and an atmosphere of escalating violent threat make Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s documentary as engrossing as a fictional thriller. It will be primarily of interest to broadcasters, though some additional niche home-format sales and possible limited theatrical exposure are also signaled.
A onetime boom town long gone bust, Leith comprises three square miles, one cafe/store, a few families and lots of abandoned structures. Newcomers are rare, so residents were curious when, in September 2012, a somewhat standoffish older man moved onto a property he’d purchased, then proceeded to buy several others. But it turned out Craig Cobb was no mere loner: In fact, he’d have plenty of company soon, as the land he’d bought was intended to supply the foundation of a white supremacist community including numerous well-known leaders, of which he was among the most infamous. Leith residents had no idea until he’d settled in that their new neighbor had been thrown out of other countries for his racist/fascist agitation, or that he had close ties to persons convicted of terroristic or hate-crime murders.
When they did figure it out, Cobb hardly quelled their fears: Festooning his property with swastikas and other ominous propagandic materials, he announced outright at a town meeting that he intended to “take over” the town by having like-minded folk move in, then using their new majority to vote pre-existing residents out of public office. He was joined by black-clad agents of the National Socialist Front, the nation’s largest neo-Nazi organization. As longtime citizens hurled abuse, the new arrivals intimidated them via armed “patrols,” publishing the contact information of local opponents on extremist websites. The resulting climate of fear was clearly designed to drive Leith’s pre-existing community out so a “white nationalist” paradise could take shape.
Leith’s citizens weren’t going without a fight, using the city council control they still had to force Cobb & Co. out via regulation (he’d bought properties without any water access or sewage systems). But the handful of police in this sparsely populated region were stymied; while nobody wanted Cobb or his minions here, actually finding a major crime to convict him of (or simply evict him over) wasn’t easy. And as the pic’s wrap-up underlines, rights of free speech, legal gun carriage, etc., can protect even the most loathed individual from being put away.
If “Welcome to Leith” has a flaw, it’s that this reality prevents any satisfying conclusion: While some justice has been served, Leith’s citizens are still afraid of what the future may hold, and whatever grief they’ve been spared might now simply be visited on some other hapless rural enclave instead. Offering big-picture context are agents of the Southern Poverty Law Center who keep close tabs on U.S. hate groups; they first brought Cobb’s stealth plan for Leith to public attention.
No-frills assembly is appropriate and taut.