Welcome To Leith
The new efforts are coming thick and fast on Irish Netflix now, with this one, from directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, popping up in the last few weeks following a very limited theatrical run in the States and other parts of the world last year. Much like previously reviewed Western and Cartel Land, I was drawn to Welcome To Leith because it promised a unique glimpse at race relations in the United States in a year and larger era where such a topic has become a gigantic touchstone for cultural and political issues.
Recently, I’ve become rather enraptured with Hamilton, a vastly important piece of art that puts “POC” front and centre of American history in a way other mediums largely fail to do, in a time when the effort to accelerate this process is becoming overwhelming. But for everything like Hamilton, you have the continuing existence, and arguably greater reach than ever, of American white nationalist hate groups, that preach an ideology of white holocaust at the hands of minorities.
Welcome To Leith takes a look at a bizarre and almost unbelievable skirmish in this larger cultural war, when noted white supremacist Craig Cobb bought numerous plots of land in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota. Cobb intended to transplant enough like-minded people that he could take over the towns civil structures and turn it into a white nationalist community: those already resident set out to resist his efforts.
As the mayor of the “city” (or so says Wikipedia) lays out starkly in the opening minutes of Welcome To Leith, the titular area is essentially a speck in the vastness of rural North Dakota, consisting of “three square miles, 24 residents…and one business”. The business is a bar, and the resident’s numbers include children. Looking around the ramshackle homes and dilapidated buildings that infest an area left burned by unfinished rail projects and nearby oil drilling – that never really gets much attention – you can easily believe the comments of one observer, that Leith looks “like B-roll of The Walking Dead”. Yet this isolated little place jumped briefly to near national prominence in 2012 when an extraordinarily nasty individual decided it was a perfect place for, essentially, a neo-Nazi colonisation.
Welcome To Leith is, more or less, an attempt to form a character portrait of Cobb, a figure who seems to vacillate between creepily friendly and mentally deranged. The directors take their time in getting to the man itself, making sure that we get the view of others first, people like those who run the hate group documenting Southern Poverty Law Centre or the residents of Leith who found themselves the subject of so much unwanted attention. For the first half hour of Welcome To Leith, Cobb is more of an abstract, almost cartoonish figure visible only in photographs and grainy video.
It’s when you get to actually talk to the man that the really bizarre stuff starts to come out. Leaving aside the hideous racism, Cobb claims to come from an “upper-middle class” background, that he is autistic and was once courted by both the NSA and military special forces due to his high intelligence, claims the directing team allow Cobb to make while making no effort to verify or refute them. It’s impossible to tell whether Cobb really buys into his own delusions as much as he sometimes claims he does: his later appearances, when he decides to let the documentarians interview him directly, showcase a very different person to the Cobb that appeared earlier, but one cannot escape the sensation that the man is performing an elaborate and self-gratifying bout of fakery in order to avoid prison.
Cobb is fascinating enough, in a perverse, anger-inducing way, but Welcome To Leith is also quite interesting in the way that it presents such an unvarnished look at the hate group playbook when it comes to the kind of organisations that Cobb is a part of/leads. They multiply in online forums, safe from public criticism and censor. They obsess over an Aryan culture they have little genuine understanding of, proudly planting flags of long-dead European nations they feel somehow cleaved to their world-view (they include countries occupied by the Nazi’s in World War II, without a shred of irony). They insist upon their own racial purity, and then struggle to deal with the fact that very few people in the world are all one colour in the DNA (including Cobb, found to have 12% sub-Saharan DNA in his genetic make-up in a mortifying talk show spot).
These people are hard to contemplate, let alone react appropriately to. There’s a sheer lack of understanding about the state of the modern day America, or the acknowledgement of lies, that it’s easy to dismiss nearly all of them as the kind of person who should be locked up for their own safety as much as for the safety of others. Perhaps most terrifying is the family that follows Cobb into Leith first, seen openly discussing the most hateful kind of ideology in front of very young and very impressionable children. They play an alphabet game, and ask the kid “What starts with N?” while being interviewed. The child, maybe wanting to leave the audience with some hope for the next generation, doesn’t say what they clearly want him to.
Worse, they love to bait and tease and provoke, non-stop. None of the self-proclaimed white power dimwits that Welcome To Leith portrays go very long without either holding a camera or being in the lens of one, and Cobb and others utterly delight in shoving them in people’s faces and seeking a reaction. The playbook is very clear: get people on camera, get them riled up, provoke them into a verbal or physical attack, and then edit the footage later to make yourself look like the victim.
Walker and Nichols were somehow able to gain access to some of this footage, and it depicts some truly startling mental illness, most notably when Cobb and another Aryan sycophant decide to walk around the streets of Leith brandishing guns, claiming later they had no intent to terrorise people (but are shown on camera bragging about their aim and hopes that people give them an excuse to shoot). You can almost imagine the defences in your ears – they were provoked, first amendment, yadda yadda yadda – that will be used the moment they manage to get things to turn violent.
Welcome To Leith, when not focusing on the racists that are trying to take over this tiny town, focuses on its residents, those who have to try and find a way to deal with Cobb, though the film never really spends enough time on them that you can really get a feel for their personalities. There’s the mayor, who seems a bit lost with what to do when confronted with such an unexpected problem, the couple whose daughter has been murdered at some time in the past, and see’s this factoid flung in their faces by Cobb, and there’s an interracial marriage, which includes the only black man in the town. You’d think his perspective would be important, but Welcome To Leith doesn’t spend all that much time on him.
Their options are frustratingly limited, as Cobb operates nearly entirely through the law: he buys plots of land legally, rents them to others legally, and is at pains to stay just within the boundaries of the law when it comes to his orchestrated campaign of intimidation. The residents fight back with some intimidation of their own – the directors don’t blanch from showing the harassment the aforementioned family go through, but the viewer’s sympathy will surely be limited regardless – but must resort to the law as well as they can.
And the law, as Welcome To Leith shows, is, if not broken, very bent. Cobb and his underlings can disrupt town hall meetings with abandon, and legislative measures to curtail his activities always come with the fear that Cobb or others will fly off the deep end and start shooting, as some of them have before (Cobb somewhat implicated in the murder of a judge sometime before the events being recorded).
When it comes to actual prosecutions for actual illegal behaviour, the citizens of Leith are similarly hamstrung. The slightest word out of order by witnesses can lead to collapse of a larger case, and hate groups like those Cobb is involved in are well versed in appearing contrite in front of a judge after months of opposite behaviour. Welcome To Leith’s final point in this regard is left open-ended, as we are shown a Cobb still clinging to the sweet words said to the court, and residents angry at a legal system that seems more concerned with lenient sentencing than protecting the law-abiding. In the aftermath, some of the Leith citizens decide to skirt the boundaries of what is legally acceptable to make sure Cobb doesn’t come back, and the lingering results of this action are apparently still in the courts today. But what else could they do?
The rot goes much further, onwards and upwards, with Welcome To Leith noting that the authorities fixation on Islamic terrorism post 9-11 has reduced resources to combat internal hate-crime based terrorism, leaving NGO’s like the Southern Poverty Law Centre to shoulder the burden. These people never appear to be in great numbers anywhere, but Welcome To Leith makes it clear what kind of terrible power they can potentially wield, using and twisting democracy to further values repugnant to the concept.
Welcome To Leith is a great documentary, if only a little aimless in sections, unsure of how to rightly pace the narrative being laid out. There are gaps in this story – like the aforementioned claims by Cobb – that could do with some filling, and one feels like this is the kind of story that the documentarians should have been just a little more comfortable putting themselves in, as opposed to staying unseen and, mostly, unheard. But as a look at the pitfalls that can affect American microtowns, the failure of law in situations regarding hate groups and as a character portrait of one of the most notable racist operating in America today, Welcome To Leith is a strong success. Apparently, Cobb has already tried to do the same thing he tried in Leith in two other places. Efforts like Welcome To Leith can hopefully keep the pressure on for him never to succeed.
(All images are copyright of First Run Features).