In the great Westerns of Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More) and Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven) a man always comes to town. The man in question – like Eastwood’s Man With No Name in Leone’s films – is an imperfect protagonist (or anti-hero) who brings retribution to an also corrupt society. The brilliance of the documentary Welcome To Leith is that is also revolves around a man who comes to town, yet he is no hero, but a frightening real-life antagonist.
Leith, North Dakota was founded in 1910 and is one of America’s smallest cities, with a population of 16 as of the 2010 census. After the railroad was abandoned in Leith in 1984 it became deeply isolated, yet there is a close-knit community within the city. In 2012 Craig Cobb, the notorious white supremacist, rather anonymously moved into the town and quickly and easily began buying up land from the locals. Things became scary when he started moving neo-nazis into the town, stocking up on weapons and patrolling the streets.
Welcome To Leith picks up this story, initially from the point of view of the long-term locals, who become aware of Cobb’s plans to grow the town into a majority white supremacist enclave and endeavor to kick him out by any legal means necessary. While the film does deal with the legal aspects of this standoff, the real thrill of watching the film comes from the way in which the tension between Cobb and the town boils over into physical action. Much like a Spaghetti Western, the opposing forces frequently come into direct conflict, which makes the ideological struggle very real.
The film also offers Cobb and his supporters screen time, which sheds light on their perspective and builds tension, but it never plays in their favour (as the British TV documentary The Battle for Barking also didn’t for the BNP.) To hear Cobb’s views from the horse’s mouth leaves no doubt that this recalcitrant man offers a senseless vision of division, chaos and hopelessness. Only those whose political leaning comes from a place of irrational prejudice, entitlement and anger could be convinced.
Directors Nichols and Walker do well to create a real sense of isolation in Leith; beautiful cinematography of the sweeping landscapes outside of the town shows just how cut-off this community is. There is a vital sense in the film that Leith is really the frontier between a compassionate and accepting American way of life and a despair ridden white nationalism. Ultimately the film’s open ending leaves a sense of frustration in the viewer – perhaps there’s room for a sequel – but also a crucial sense of vigilance towards this ongoing struggle.