Early in Welcome to Leith, Ryan Lenz, a researcher on hate groups for the Southern Poverty Law Center, describes his first visit to the Leith, North Dakota (pop: 24): “It was like B-roll for the Walking Dead.” That’s a description the townspeople probably wouldn’t care for, understandably. But one glance at the straggly trees, dirt roads, and abandoned houses set against the broad and intimidating expanse of the sweeping northern plains, and the average viewer might be tempted to agree.
Like many rural towns facing high unemployment and dire times for small farms and ranches, Leith is beginning to resemble a ghost town. Under these circumstances, new job opportunities from the Bakken oil shale boom were welcome. Under these circumstances, too, white supremacist Craig Cobb was able in 2012 to start his own isolated Aryan enclave in the under-populated, increasingly desolate Leith.
As soon becomes clear in Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s revealing and frightening documentary, Leith was unprepared for a professional troll like Cobb. A rangy would-be prophet of the so-called World Church of the Creator, he had been swimming for decades in the murky swamps of white supremacists, skinheads, and neo-Nazis. Although he was one of the movement’s most infamous and outspoken members, he never bothered to hide his hate speech behind a veneer of white pride doublespeak, à la David Duke. Cobb’s spoke plainly about what he believed needed to be done against Jews, blacks, and all other non-white ethnicities to protect his race.
We see in the film that, after Cobb takes up residence in a falling-down house with no running water or sewer connection, he makes no effort to blend in or try to bring people around to his point of view. instead, he buys up multiple lots at bargain-basement prices and posts notices on white supremacist websites calling for like-minded people to come and join his movement. In September 2013, several leaders from the Detroit-based National Socialist Movement show up for a town council meeting. By now the people of Leith and nearby have taken notice: Cobb’s group confronts hundreds of counter-protesters, including Native Americans from a neighboring reservation.
Still, the film illustrates, no matter how belligerent Cobb and his allies act towards the locals, there is little the people of Leith can do to stop him. There are only four police officers to cover the entire county of 1,600 square miles. Worse, after 9/11, the resources and manpower the federal government once used to infiltrate and dismantle much of the neo-Nazi movement was reassigned to fight Islamic terrorism. Facing Cobb’s creepy messaging — which include maps of the town pointing out where its one interracial couple lived and crude swastika signs — there isn’t much people can do but arm themselves and stay on guard.
When Cobb finally finds a follower from Leith, a sycophantic skinhead and his family, they take to marching around town with their rifles, doing their best to provoke some kind of confrontation that will allow them to cry martyrdom. There are times when Welcome to Leith resembles one of those stalker movies, where the anxious victim-to-be is told by authorities, “Until he actually threatens you, my hands are tied.” Only here, it’s an entire community that’s being stalked.
By being on the ground as the story unfolds, the filmmakers transmit its seriousness in a manner that the news coverage, which emphasizes Cobb’s clownish antics and how few of his race-hate brethren heed his call to hateful action, do not. That said, even a cursory examination of why Cobb failed to garner followers for his miniature Reich might have enhanced the film’s storytelling.
As it is, the narrative is reminiscent of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s films, the way they could, by being on site day after day, deliver the non-sensationalist side of the West Memphis Three case in the Paradise Lost films. Although those films and this one differ in many aspects — one involves a community scapegoating innocent outsiders and the other a community rallying to defend itself against outsiders who openly threaten its existence — they share a belief that the real story is captured once the news cameras are turned off and subjects are left to confront an unresolved evil.
Eventually, Cobb’s own limited ability to lead a miniature movement of genocidal sociopaths dooms his project, but Nichols and Walker don’t use that failure as cause for celebration. As Welcome to Leith shows, Cobb was brought down by his own inability to act strategically. The next time a town like Leith contends with such an invasion, it may not be lucky enough to face such an unhinged and incompetent opponent.