Sydney Film Festival Review: Welcome to Leith (USA, 2014)

welcome to leith

Over 86 minutes, this chilling documentary details how a (very) small, quiet town in North Dakota slowly transformed into a breeding ground for hatred and paranoia over the course of a few months. It’s easy to watch Welcome to Leith as a highly effective thriller, forgetting that the events going down in the film actually happened, and the people that caused those events are real people with real agency in America. Once the reality of it all hits throughout the course of the documentary, one would be forgiven for absorbing a sense of fear; such is the genius of creators Michael Beach Nicholas and Christopher K Walker, in that they have delivered a documentary so immersive and well executed that it can easily invoke a sense of fear, disgust, and hatred.

The main concern in Welcome to Leith is the tactical growth of the white supremacy movement, brought about by an avowed supremacist named Craig Cobb. The 24 residents that make up the population of Leith appear to be peaceful and accepting enough as the documentary starts, cutting in foreboding accounts with a well-drawn picture of what life was like in Leith before a strange, seemingly sympathetic man (Cobb) started buying up property in the town.

Cobb’s purpose was simple: overwhelm the small and vulnerable town, turning it into a base in which himself and his fellow white supremacists, including higher ups from the National Socialist Movement, can gather and take ownership. Never mind the 24 residents – including one black man – who take issue with it.

While Leith’s struggle to eject this man from their decrepit yet close-knit community is met with support from neighbouring locales, it is essentially the First Amendment that is their biggest barrier. The documentaries big, powerful theme is then apparent: civil rights are being used and abused to provide loopholes for hateful people like Cobb, an infamous white supremacist who is known to have close ties with violence in the name of racial prejudice.

While Beach Nicolas and Walker do a tremendous job making the documentary as impartial as possible, straddling both sides and balancing both perspectives, the frustration is real and affecting when you watch Cobb and his fellow white supremacists as everyday, casual people. This makes Welcome to Leith all the more terrifying; fictitious Hollywood films usually portray white supremacists with all the extremism they can, and yet here they are as real people; one is even a budding chef baking cakes for his family and attempting to normalise the movement by comparing it to bodies like the NAACP.

Vast landscape shots and roaming cameras are used to great effect here, capturing the claustrophobia of Leith and foreshadowing the feeling of helplessness as the law protects hatred despite the best efforts of it’s physical enforcers. But there is also beauty here; beauty in the sweeping, quiet visuals that navigate everyday life in Leith from the reserved to the provoked. The way Beach Nicholas and Walker manage to suck you into their work and really shake you up is entirely deserving of praise, showcasing a technical proficiency and perfect sense of pacing that is far beyond the average documentary.

Ultimately, Welcome to Leith is only restrained by it’s reality, and we are left feeling strongly enough to take up the town’s cause despite not really knowing anything beyond the fact that Cobb is still a very real, very present, and very clever threat to not only the morale in Leith, but America in general. And that threat is protected by the First Amendment. It’s uncomfortable viewing, knowing that these thoughts really do exist and seeing the embodiment of those thoughts right in front of you; even more uncomfortable knowing that this documentary is not made to attack or misrepresent those thoughts. But it’s a necessary discomfort, and sitting through this wonderfully made piece is as rewarding as it is downright scary.

Review Score: FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Running time: 86 minutes

Welcome to Leith had it’s first screening yesterday at the Sydney Film Festival and will screen again on Monday 8th June. More details can be found HERE