Welcome to Leith
There’s nothing more tragic in life – or documentary filmmaking – than a wasted opportunity. There are moments in both where the stars align, the wind is at your back and your path is clear. Moments when the goal looks huge, or the solution seems simple. But when such moments are squandered, nobody really remembers what went before, only that a golden chance has gone up in smoke. So it is with Christopher K Walker and Michael Beach Nichols’ documentary Welcome to Leith, which gently and steadily blows out the most incendiary material imaginable.
Leith is a tiny town in North Dakota – 25 people tiny. It’s not especially pretty: one resident likens it to “B-roll from The Walking Dead” – but it’s sleepy, peaceable and welcoming. All of which is what attracted Craig Cobb to buy a house in the town in 2012. The problem was that although Cobb initially seems like a “quiet, keep-to-himself typa guy”, he is in fact a raging white supremacist who has arrived in Leith with the intention of buying up parcels of land and leasing them to his Aryan chums in a bid to outnumber the existing townsfolk at local elections and take over the town. The locals are stunned and frustrated, the police are out of their depth and Cobb is a shrewd bigot who knows how to use the law to insulate himself. The race for Leith is on, but just at the moment when the film should change gears, it starts to run out of gas.
There are some stunning, blood-boiling scenes. When Cobb, a supreme schoolyard manipulator and nobody’s fool, goads a bereaved father at a council meeting, you wonder at the far extremes of human malice and endurance. But no documentary maker can rely on a constant string of such moments to propel their story forward, and when the fireworks fade and the directors are called on to provide context, background or history for the hateful events unfolding, they are found wanting. Cobb is a fascinating – if ghastly – character, but at no point does the film pry into the strange pathways of life that made him such a pathetic monster. The townspeople are homogenised into decent, down-home strugglers. And the ending – abrupt and premature yet ponderous – leaves one with more questions than answers.
A good documentary doesn’t have to be a work of narrative art, nor does it have to reinvent the wheel, but it does have to do its subject matter justice, and on that level Welcome to Leith fails to deliver.
Adam Lee Davies
Welcome to Leith is released on 12th February 2016.
Watch the trailer for Welcome to Leith here: