Sunday, September 6, 2015

Try putting yourself in this community's shoes: Nichols and Walker's doc, WELCOME TO LEITH

What an unsettling documentary is WELCOME TO LEITH -- and for reasons that go well beyond the immediate problems at hand for the minuscule community of Leith, North Dakota, in which the events we view take place. A tiny town with only 24 residents, Leith suddenly got a new one back in 2012, when a fellow named Craig Cobb arrived and began buying plots of land. The rare newcomer would normally be welcomed in a place like this, and so he initially was -- until the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which had been tracking Mr. Cobb for a long while, unveiled him as a notorious white supremacist with plans to take over the town and its government. Owning twelve plots of land, as he eventually did, would make this rather easy in a town of 25.

However they managed this, the dual directors -- Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker (pictured above with Mr. Nichols on the left) -- were given surprising access to both the townspeople and the white supremacists, including especially Mr. Cobb (below, center) and his sort-of deputies, a couple named Kynan Dutton (below, left) and Deb Henderson (below, right).

What this access and its resulting information achieves has less to do with changing any minds and hearts -- most viewers, I suspect (or at least hope), will reject Cobb's message as loathsome and dead wrong -- but what will begin to trouble them, perhaps, is whether or not the man and his followers have any right to voice that message. And, further, what, in terms of hate speech, constitutes a real threat to life and limb?

The filmmakers seem to have been about as "fair and evenhanded" as possible in showing us the two sides. Mr. Cobb comes across as nasty, hateful and perhaps near-certifiable (hearing his past via a rep from the SPLC adds to this assessment). And seeing him parading around carrying a loaded rifle doesn't help matters.

But as the movie continues and testimony is considered (and then withdrawn and/or waived), some doubt settles in regarding just how huge a threat Cobb and his followers actually were. I sure as hell wouldn't want them anywhere near my local community, but, still -- what exactly does our first amendment mean and guarantee? That the film will raise this question so strongly among alert viewers is a testament to its search for more than blame and simple answers.

Along the way, we meet the pre-Cobb inhabitants of Leith, and quite a decent lot they prove to be. One of them is a black man whose very presence in Leith, perfectly fine by everyone else, becomes a slap in the face to the supremacists whose dirty tactics involve everything from ugly slogan-spouting to blaming/shaming one of the other citizens for the death of his own daughter.

Less of an it-could-happen-here! warning (America has few remaining towns as small and distant as Leith) than an exploration of how hate speech can or might turn into hate action, and what, if anything, can be done about this beforehand, Welcome to Leith, in both what it shows us and what it asks us, proves troubling to the max.

The documentary, from First Run Features and lasting 85 minutes, opens theatrically in New York City at the IFC Center this Wednesday, September 9, and will hit another 20 cities around the country over the coming weeks and months. You can view all currently scheduled playdates by clicking here and scrolling down.

Addendum: Welcome to Leith hits video today, 
February 9, 2016 -- for sale or rental. 
So there's no excuse not to see 
this surprising, troubling documentary.

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