The terrifying documentary Welcome to Leith is a twisted thought experiment come to life. What if, today, a white supremacist lunatic convinced enough other white supremacist lunatics to move into a small American town and managed to take it over, using the democratic systems in place — town council meetings, elections, etc.? (No Trump jokes, please.) Well, it almost happened, in the teeny-tiny North Dakota town of Leith — consisting of “three square miles and 24 residents, with the children” — when, in 2012, a notorious neo-Nazi named Craig Cobb moved in, bought up cheap lots of land, and started selling them to “luminaries in the white supremacist movement.”
The film lands us right in the middle of his attempted takeover. With only a dozen or so townspeople to deal with, Cobb’s plan seems ominously plausible. If even just a small handful of Cobb’s fellow travelers become residents, he’ll have control of the place. And he has his whole vision mapped out: He’ll dot the place with the flags of all the formerly all-white nations of Europe (including Nazi Germany and the countries it occupied), he’ll get young women to come and mate with white Aryan males, and eventually the town will be a swinging-dick Nazi utopia. Cobb’s neighbors in Leith, a place where people live because they like the privacy and the you-mind-your-business-I’ll-mind-mine remoteness of rural life, take a while to grasp what’s going on, but soon enough, they find themselves having to act. Still, what can they do?
It’s a fascinating story, filled with fascinating characters — not just the nutter-butters like Cobb, but his neighbor, councilman Lee Cook, known to his fellow townsfolk as “the nicest fucking guy on the planet,” who runs afoul of Cobb early and starts packing heat and sleeping with a small arsenal after receiving threats from the man. Or the kindly Bobby Harper, Leith’s sole black resident, who refuses to be intimidated by the neo-Nazis cropping up in town. Or even Kynan Dutton, a troubled Iraq War veteran and white supremacist who moves to Leith with his family and at first seems coolly articulate about all the legal issues involved, then later shows his shockingly violent side.
Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker have managed to get extensive access to all sides of the story, and they were able to film much of the action as it happened, so Welcome to Leith has a present-tense immediacy that many documentaries made after-the-fact struggle mightily to achieve. But the film is about more than just this one incident in this one small town. It also explores the vast cosmology of neo-Nazism and Aryan separatism in America, and does so with an unusual amount of fairness; that is to say, Nichols and Walker often let these head cases speak for themselves. That very matter-of-fact approach enhances the horror. Welcome to Leith is a sober, terrifying look at the very real monsters roaming the quiet countryside.