Nate von Zumwalt
As often as cinema can operate as a vehicle for empathy, it can just as easily provoke the contrary. Co-directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker never intended for their film to pander to audience’s entrenched beliefs, and that was on display front-and-center at a hot-blooded screening of the film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, where its most nefarious subject joined via Skype during a rowdy Q&A session.
Welcome to Leith follows along as infamous white supremacist Craig Cobb descends on the unassuming town of Leith, North Dakota (population 24), and begins buying up parcels of land. It’s not an unprecedented undertaking in North Dakota, but his plans are not aligned with those who have employed similar tactics in the region to cash in on the state’s oil boom. Instead, Cobb plans to develop a supremacist stronghold in Leith, and with his small troupe of neo-Nazis in tow they quickly begin terrorizing the town.
Welcome to Leith thrusts upon its viewers the uncomfortable collision of the first amendment and unadulterated bigotry. It is without question a challenging watch, yet it becomes nearly impossible to avert one’s eyes. Despite its infuriating and primitive-minded lead subject, here are four reasons you can’t miss Welcome to Leith, which opens at IFC Theater on September 9, and expands throughout the country over the coming months.
1. Co-directors Nichols and Walker are unwaveringly objective.
It’s this even-handedness that allows for the film to work. The content is often so abrasive that the audience doesn’t need to be guided by a moral hand (or camera). In Walker’s own words, “It was very much [about] getting in the trenches and trying to objectively tell both sides of the conflict.”
2. The landscape provides a chilling backdrop to an already haunting story.
Leith is home to a miniscule 16 adults and patrolled by 4 police officers. Meanwhile, Bismarck, the closest thing to a real city, is two hours away. Nichols, Walker and team do a masterful job of interweaving the tension with spellbinding shots of the stark scenery.
3. There’s both a history lesson and a tough-to-swallow tutorial on tolerance here.
“[The film] does sort of challenge you and make you confront how people behave in these sort of circumstances where even if you are totally opposed to their world view, they are doing something that is completely legal and you can’t just attack them,” Nichols said.
The film lives in the liminal space—or for some of us the cavernous gap—between the first amendment and the universal condition of believing that our own beliefs are what is right and true. But therein lies the lesson.
4. Craig Cobb is endlessly intriguing, even though you’ll frequently want to shake the chauvinism out of him.
I mean, just look at the guy.