Given that not a single soul has attempted to do just what this film’s main subject did for the first time in modern times, it’s safe to say that viewers haven’t seen anything like this – and the more uninformed going into it, the better.
In 2012, the now-infamous White Separatist, Neo-Nazi Craig Cobb, fled Canada to escape hate crimes charges and settled into the near ghost-town of Leith, North Dakota (population: 24) with a plan: acquire as much land as he could, invite as many White Separatists as he could, overtake the city council, and establish a Neo-Nazi enclave in middle America.
At first he’s quiet, buying up parcels of land for rock-bottom prices, but this is soon followed by a provocative and contentious Neo-Nazi rally at Leith’s city council meeting. With Cobb’s plans still in their early stages and an admittedly limited supply of bureaucratic tricks up their sleeves, the city council attempts to outwit Cobb on procedure and technicality. With anxieties rising and never-ending left-field surprises, the battle for Leith takes on new meaning as its citizens grapple with the limitations of democracy.
The film’s directors, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker, harness some truly great material given the circumstances; after viewing a short news report about Cobb’s intentions, the filmmakers high-tailed it to North Dakota, filming the events as they unfolded in real-time over many, many months. This is true, grueling filmmaking with a dedication to story; that the ending was yet unknown (and, hence, the film’s power and guarantee of allure to audiences) only elevates their work.
Perhaps more than any other film before it, the genius lies in Leith’s symbolic stand-in for America and its almost daily calculus in balancing the rights of the minority with the will of the majority. The warning that democracy is inherently fragile is a powerful reminder that America’s citizens, in all their frailties, deserve only the best government they are willing to work for and continuously sustain. Upholding and honoring the First Amendment isn’t always easy – indeed, it may be the most difficult right to reconcile within our own communities and even within our own families – but the constant always circled back to is that it can withstand the warfare of a modern world, which at times seems more fractured and divided than ever. It is our North Star, should we choose to follow it.
Welcome To Leith is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary competition and will premiere on Independent Lens on PBS in 2016.
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