They are coming. They are taking over us. Every now and again news outlets love to scare us with a new “wave” of people who are meant to overwhelm the place we live in. It is rarely realistic and mostly meant as clickbait or a reason for us to pick up the publication. Welcome to Leith is the story of a small town in America where “they” came and almost DID take over.
We are in Leith, North Dakota. It is a bona fide ghost town with 24 registered inhabitants. The only opportunities of making a living there are ranching or finding a job in the oil fields close to the town. Oh and the single shop / bar, but they’re not hiring right now. So when the seemingly quiet and sedate Craig Cobb moves to town, he is initially welcomed. When he starts buying up land voraciously, it is assumed he has some plan linked with the nearby oil fields. But Cobb is aiming for something a lot bigger than that. He is one of the most notorious white supremacists in the country and his plan is simple. Just move in 20 people sympathetic to his cause, and start running the town. Start an Aryan community. And the scary thing is, in a town like Leith, where some people have never even heard of a white supremacist, it might just work. Tensions mount, guns are drawn and all of a sudden the little ghost town is in the centre of a legal dispute watched by the nation.
Technically speaking, the documentary features the classic talking head interviews mixed with news footage and footage filmed by the participants themselves. But in all honesty, the technical prowess is not what is on show with this documentary – even though the whole thing is executed both ably and admirably. What is on show is the story, and it is truly a story that only real life could have dreamt up. The first thing one is struck by is how easily Cobb’s plan could have been realised. He could have easily found 20 people to move to Leith, the oil fields offer job opportunities and Cobb himself had acquired 12 parcels of land and was in the market to buy even more. Only when the quiet and calculating side of the plan is abandoned and things begin to escalate, one feels that the townspeople picked up their cameras (along with, in some cases, their guns) to make a record of this rather unbelievable phenomenon that was unfolding in front of them.
Apart from being the behind the scenes story of a rather unbelievable phenomenon and legal battle, Welcome to Leith is a rather poignant opportunity to reflect on and observe some rather “old fashioned” and typically American values. Just to start off, the story sounds like something out of an old Western – the bad guys riding into town one day, conning the townspeople, the sheriff (in this particular case the mayor) trying to fight back… and yet it really happened. On another hand, we have the phenomenon of American gun culture. The initial dispute that later spirals out of control is born from both sides – the supremacists and the townsfolk – feeling the need, for whatever reason, to patrol / protect their lands with guns.
In fact, what is most striking here is the way the inhabitants and Cobb take things into their own hands. Cobb actually does ride into town and tries to take over to create his own Aryan community. When the meetings and discussions go nowhere, both sides start getting ready for a big showdown with guns of all sizes. All in all, the documentary is a wonderful reflection on American culture. The pioneer, homesteader spirit that conquered the Wild West is far from dead, even if it is being used for a rather distasteful cause.
A very insightful look into American culture, Welcome to Leith definitely leaves us with a lot to think about. We are not all together unfamiliar with the concept of extremist groups trying to form their own “utopian” community. Only thing is, this generally happens in faraway lands, on the news. Welcome to Leith reminds us that the things that make us shudder or tut disapprovingly over dinner may well be much, much closer to home than we first thought.
Welcome to Leith was screened as part of the East End Film Festival – for more information check http://www.eastendfilmfestival.com