The heroes of the documentary Welcome to Leith are a handful of white supremacists. That’s not to say they’re presented as the “good guys” in the lens of the filmmakers, though it’s also not always clear that’s not the case. They’re the heroes primarily because they save the doc in more ways than one. First of all, as subjects they’re so fascinating in their hate-spewing despicableness that the film easily, lazily leans on them to pull in the interest of the viewer. They shock, they anger and hopefully they bewilder the audience, provoking as many thoughts as emotions. Second of all, they capture and provide the most integral moments we see on screen, footage shot with phones and laptop cameras that the doc would be totally lost without.
To a large degree, the doc is still lost as far as its storytelling goes. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker (Flex is Kings) went to the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota, after reading a 2013 New York Times article that sufficiently sets up the conflict at hand: an influential and fairly famous Neo-Nazi named Craig Cobb has bought up a bunch of cheap property in the neighborhood, called for other white nationalist individuals and groups to join him there and plans on taking over the government by democratic means so it could be a separatist community of people sharing in his white pride beliefs and agenda. And the locals of Leith, including one interracial couple among its barely double-digit population, unsurprisingly aren’t very welcoming.
Those residents, along with concerned outsiders who also heard the news, begin harassing Cobb and his fellow white supremacist settlers and visitors. Town council meetings are planned in secrecy to keep the newcomers from participating, and when Cobb and friends do manage to attend assemblies they’re ignored or dismissed — as much as is possible, that is, while he makes a fuss about how it’s his right to be there and be counted. People trespass on Cobb’s land, they make threats, they come up with ways to get rid of him using freshly devised ordinances that they fail to make official and in general they show themselves to be a pack of hypocritically prejudiced dogs bent on eliminating those who think differently from them.
Cobb and his associates and supporters are never portrayed as villains, and of course they don’t really want to be seen as such. In one scene, a family of neo-Nazis who’ve moved to Leith in a trailer that sits in Cobb’s driveway appear particularly conscientious while talking with their very young son about his homework. The child reveals his assignment is to come up with words starting with the letter ‘n,’ and his father — who sports a Hitler-style mustache and has already been seen giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Seig heil!” in one of the town hall meetings — looks to the camera with an expression of concern that that ’n’ word will be spoken as the boy begins rattling off, “nickel… nine….” Fortunately it is not, at least while we’re watching.
Nichols and Walker don’t make the native dwellers of Leith out to be good or bad, either. Frankly, any way that you see Cobb or the townsfolk (including Mayor Ryan Schock, who has had some legal trouble related to events seen in the doc since its premiere at Sundance earlier this year) is up to your own philosophy, if you’re also against the acceptance of hate speech and swastikas under the First Amendment (characters putting up “the Confederate Flag” in their yard has become strikingly relevant) or if you’re disapproving of any form of harassment and discrimination of a minority group. The residents do come off as trying to start trouble before it arises, and at one point Cobb is tangentially linked to a fan of his who shot up a Jewish Community Center, killing three. That, after Cobb and the neo-Nazi father, Kynan Dutton, go to jail for walking around Leith armed with rifles, in response to threats and vandalism attacks they’d received first.
It’s a complicated narrative in and of itself, one of a town divided by fear and terror from both sides of the street. There are other extensive matters floating around the story, too, a mention of the FBI’s neglect of hate-group monitoring after 9/11 put all their focus on muslim organizations, a too-brief introduction to the Southern Poverty Law Center and their efforts to make up for the government’s shortfalls regarding hate crime and leaders like Cobb, and the unspoken real issue at hand where the takeover of Leith was being facilitated by a poor economy, mirroring on a very small scale what occurred in Germany with the Nazis’ rise to power. That ought to be a major takeaway from the story — there’s even a slight reference to the fact that the most notoriously economically destroyed city in the US, Detroit, is home to a lot of neo-Nazis — but it’s not an angle Welcome to Leith addresses.
Nichols and Walker, if they have even thought of the economic side of the story, leave it to us to work it out in full. As they do with most everything else. They seem to see neutrality, as in their avoidance of taking either side for a well-balanced film, as simply sitting back and letting things unfold, allowing footage they’ve compiled or shot themselves to play as they are, artlessly cobbled together chronologically without their realization that essential details, both exposition and key commentary from their subjects, are missing. This isn’t a complaint about a lack of information provided so much as a lack of comprehensive presentation of the information we are given. A lack of cohesive follow-through regarding the choppy material we’re watching. The biggest events in the film, Cobb and Dutton’s armed patrol and subsequent arrest and trial, much of it shot by Dutton’s wife, are not as clear nor powerful as they should be.
The main problem with Welcome to Leith is it has no narrative drive, nor any structural style that keeps it moving beyond its premise and the momentum that Cobb’s personality occasionally brings into the frame. A documentary had to be made, because its story and its characters had to be shown, but at that this is the kind of film you can sense all the way through as having been started with a news article that caught a filmmaker’s eye, and never building any more of a foundation than that. So, if at all, this auto-pilot effort is just barely worth seeing for its subjects and what they offer, even if it’s not a complete picture and hasn’t enough context or fully formed dramatic sequences to carry on an engagement with the viewer as it plays out.
Or you can just watch Nichols and Walker’s much stronger, more focused Op-Doc short for the Times, titled Separatist, which concentrates solely on Dutton and his family and features much overlap with Welcome to Leith.
This review was originally published on September 10, 2015.