Viennale 2015 – Day 5: Welcome to Leith

Welcome to LeithWelcome to Leith
USA 2015
Written by Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker
Directed by Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker
Watched on 26.10.2015

“Welcome to Leith” is not a documentary that wants to convey a certain message, but rather one of those that raise quite interesting questions and draw our attention on important issues, but without providing any (easy) answers and/or solutions. It also handles a difficult subject matter with a lot of restraint and care, refusing to take sides, and simply documenting this dispute between white supremacist Craig Cobb and the inhabitants of the small U.S. town of Leith. Without any narration and or commentary, it’s up to us to draw our own conclusions – something that, in this case, I very much appreciated.

“Welcome to Leith” tells the unsettling tale of Craig Cobb, who tried to take over the small, 24-inhabitants community of Leith, North Dakota. His plan was to buy up land and to build a home for white supremacists and similar thinking folk. But the inhabitants didn’t want to have anything to do with him, and did everything in their power to stop him, and to ultimately kick him out. And this is exactly where things got interesting for me. I mean, obviously, there are many stupid, intolerant, racist, hateful and potentially dangerous people out there. But if we deny them the freedoms that they in turn want to take away from certain sections of the population – are we any better than them? Or aren’t we rather fighting fire with fire? Then again, should we just let them do as they please, until they empoison our home so much that we feel the need to leave? How far is freedom of speech allowed to go? Can we really afford to wait until something really bad happens before we take action? But if we don’t, aren’t we taking away exactly those rights and freedoms that we demand for everyone else? Don’t Nazis have to live somewhere too?!?! Gosh, I really loved that “Welcome to Leith” forced me to deal with all those questions, and many more, and thus made me really uncomfortable. It reminded me a little bit of issues that we had over here, with the refugee crisis, where some people were laid off after posting vile shit on the internet (like when a fire brigade posted a picture of a little girl who enjoyed a cold shower during the heat wave in the summer, and one brain-dead shithead felt the need to suggest that they should have used a flamethrower instead). Of course such things can and should not go unchallenged. But when we lay them off – or, in Cobb’s case, force them out – are we really helping the situation? Won’t we make them even more bitter and hateful and desperate and radicalized and – possibly – violent? Gosh, I really wish I had a good answer to that.

Which is exactly why I found “Welcome to Leith” so fascinating, challenging, disturbing and important. Yes, Cobb is a terrible human being, and his plans to build a little Nazi-community had to be stopped. But when they (allegedly) slice open the tires of his car, force him out of his home, and later on, burn it to the ground… despite the disgust and fear that they must have felt, it was difficult for me to get 100% behind their actions. And that was just awesome, because it would have been so easy to stage the inhabitants of Leith as the sacrosanct heroes and Cobb and his followers as the despicable villains of this piece. Instead, it portrays them as desperate people who take desperate measures in order to defend their homes, their families and their community from Cobb’s hateful influence, but I wouldn’t really call them heroic, since there definitely are a couple of moments where they seemed to cross a line. The fact that they didn’t glorify one side in this conflict over the other, was one of the biggest strengths of this documentary for me. It also shows how hate will always trigger more hate, and suggests a seemingly endless downward spiral that I really found disturbing. There also were a couple of really tense moments, especially the camera footage of Cobb going on armed “patrol” in Leith. Nevertheless, there also were a couple of lighter moments that broke the somber mood and which I really enjoyed, like the talk show or the scene with the words that start with “n”. One of my few complaints about the movie is that during those scenes that were taken from footage shot by other guys, and with less sophisticated equipment (for example, during the town council meetings), I wouldn’t have minded subtitles, since I had difficulties understanding everything that was being said. Also, I had the feeling that the occasional scene was only there to stretch this to feature-length, but didn’t really add anything (other than running time). Despite that, “Welcome to Leith” is a vital documentary that’s as fascinating as it is disturbing, and which raises a lot of important and uncomfortable questions without providing any answers, thus forcing its viewers to grapple with this issues, and inviting them to find their own.


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