A documentary about a small town's hostile takeover might be one of 2015's most thrilling films.
Welcome to Leith
There must be something going on in North Dakota. Jesse Moss’ profile of a small ND town in The Overnighters was one of 2014’s best documentaries, and now another gripping, dramatic documentary has made its way out of North Dakota. Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s Welcome to Leith finds an incredibly tense situation playing out in a small ghost town, and both directors somehow manage to capture the whole thing while having complete access to all involved parties. It won’t be surprising if this winds up being one of the year’s most thrilling films.
Leith is the kind of small town that looks like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road come to life. It’s small, located in the middle of nowhere, and has a population of 24. It’s so small that town mayor Ryan Schock doubles as Leith’s school bus driver. Nichols and Walker spend their time introducing several of Leith’s residents before introducing Craig Cobb, a new arrival in town. Cobb swoops into Leith, snapping up a dozen plots of land. Schock and the rest of Leith don’t get too concerned about a stranger suddenly buying up chunks of their city, thinking it might be an investor trying to profit off of the state’s recent oil boom.
Except, as it turns out, Cobb is actually one of America’s most dangerous white supremacists, a vicious hatemonger who terrorizes anyone who tries to stop him. Cobb wants Leith to become a safe haven for white supremacists, and soon enough Cobb’s allies begin moving into his plots of land, ready to start a new life in an all-white utopia. By the time Schock finds out what’s happening, it’s too late. News of Cobb’s takeover spreads like wildfire, and in the film’s most heart-racing scene, Cobb blatantly announces his master plan with Leith at a tense town meeting: he’s going to let his friends move in and vote out everyone in office at the next election, giving him complete control over the city. It’s a moment that feels like it’s from a ridiculous Hollywood thriller, with Cobb fully inhabiting the role of a maniacal villain.
And just like that, the people of Leith suddenly get thrust into a nasty war for the sanctity of their town. Nichols and Walker prefer to step back when they profile the intense back-and-forths between Cobb’s people and Leith’s, letting the drama play out on its own. Their primary job appears to be providing context, with talking heads coming in to explain Cobb’s background, along with going into detail about hate groups across America. The film points out how, after 9/11, people’s eyes turned away from their own country and out into the world for new threats. Since people like Cobb are rarely heard about in the news, it might be hard to think of him as a serious danger, but Nichols and Walker provide several recent, chilling examples of hate crimes to show how people like Cobb have the potential for truly heinous behaviour.
Welcome to Leith doesn’t really delve too deep into some of the topics it brings up, but its transformation of Leith’s storyline into a tense, efficient narrative provides plenty of engrossing material. It would have been nice if Welcome to Leith offered a little more. There’s a scene where a group of people burn down a dilapidated house on one of Cobb’s properties out of anger, and for a brief moment the film flirts with condemning both sides of the story. It’s only a fleeting moment, but it hints that there may be more to Leith than just a damn good story.
A version of this review originally ran as part of our Hot Docs 2015 coverage.