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Town's Hospitality Tested in Documentary 'Welcome to Leith'

26 Feb, 2016 By: Stephanie Prange

A remote town, a mysterious stranger — that could be the setup for a creepy horror story. But in the documentary Welcome to Leith — available on DVD from First Run Features — it was the beginning of a menacing showdown over freedom of speech and the American way of life.

Notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb strolled into Leith, North Dakota — population about two dozen — with what the townsfolk soon came to see as a sinister aim, to buy property on the cheap and establish a haven for racists. The town was so small that Cobb figured it would be easy to dominate local government with just a small gathering of supremacist friends. That didn’t sit well with the peaceful folk of Leith, who employed the law to push the invaders out.

It was an article about the dustup in The New York Times in 2013 that got filmmaker Michael Nichols interested in filming the story.

“I read Cobb had been posting these messages on message boards inviting other white supremacists to move to the town because he had bought up a lot of plots of land for very cheap rates, and because with the proximity to the oil fields, there were some high-paying jobs that people could potentially have access to,” Nichols said. “I shared it with Chris [Walker], my directing partner. We just thought it was kind of this bizarre tale. Then I read about a family of white supremacists that had moved out there.”

They called the mayor of Leith, Ryan Schock, who was more than happy to put them in touch with residents, Nichols said.

“He was very open to filming and kind of fired up about the prospect,” Nichols said. “He wanted to share the story, and he felt like the local media wasn’t taking the threat of Cobb seriously.”

With the aim of being objective, Nichols and Walker also interviewed the supremacist residents, including Cobb as well as Kynan Dutton and his girlfriend Deborah Henderson, who moved their family to Leith.

“Our goal was just to show what happened,” Nichols said. “We think viewers are intelligent, and they can take what they will from the film, but I don’t think people needed any hand-holding to view the supremacists for what they were.”

The filmmakers’ even-handed approach helped them gain unique access to the supremacists.

“We were very clear that we wanted to tell the story from every perspective,” Nichols said. “They felt that they would be painted as villains by everyone else in the town. I also think a big part of it was the idea that they could use us to get their message out there, taking advantage of the platform that they thought we would provide.”

Nichols and Walker were able to obtain footage shot by Henderson of the arms patrol incident that resulted in the arrest of Cobb and Dutton. The two men had walked around with guns, which the town saw as a threat.

Eventually, Leith townspeople pushed out the interlopers, but supremacists eerily still own property in Leith, leaving the door open for a return of the invasion longtime residents fear.

The fitting title of the documentary helps set the mood for the story. It came to Nichols and his partner when they saw a sign during a visit.

“It’s just a sign right when you drive into town,” Nichols said. “It’s on these old wooden planks. It just cast this sort of ominous feel especially with what was happening with the white supremacists. When you first drive in, that’s the first thing that you see, and when Cobb was still there, you could see to the right a swastika in green. There was just this sinister feel, the idea of welcoming to a place that was kind of the opposite.”

Nichols hopes the documentary will “start conversations and have people think about things” such as freedom of speech and the democratic process.

When Welcome to Leith screened in Sweden, filmgoers noted that even putting up a swastika would get a person arrested in their country, Nichols said. In America, such hate speech is allowed under our constitution.

“What does it mean to live in a democracy where you might live next to people who may have very different views from you?” he said.

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