The strongest documentary I saw at SXSW, and really, honestly, the strongest documentary I’ve seen in the last few years, was Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s WELCOME TO LEITH. The film follows the intense scrutiny that befell a small town in North Dakota when white supremacist Craig Cobb moved in and started buying up land. Deeding land to other like-minded individuals, Cobb’s goal was apparent, to take over a town and run it by his prejudices. And Leith had to be very careful how they fought his attempt, operating within the bounds of law. WELCOME TO LEITH chronicles one of the best lessons in civics in recent history, and the frightening lengths people will go to push their message of hate.
What is truly amazing about Nichols’ and Walker’s film is that as documentary filmmakers, they do not push their own agenda. Unlike so many films (and most of the docs I saw at SXSW), the directors let the subjects tell their own story, and let the audience draw their own conclusions. They give just as much time to the white supremacists to make their case as the residents of Leith, and unsurprisingly, many of the white supremacists have very polished rhetoric. They’ve been fighting their fight for years, and know what to say and how to say it. It is fascinating to think a film like this could allow both sides to walk away from it thinking they had said their piece. That’s great filmmaking.
After researching the film, I found out the team had made the very cool underground dance doc FLEX IS KING which I saw at Tribeca a few years ago. So they are not necessarily social justice documentarians, possibly part of the reason their film is so different than most which tackle these sort of issues. Not being preached at is so rare in the doc space, or being spoon-fed a filmmaker’s position, or only showing part of the story. The pure lack of partisanship is what makes WELCOME TO LEITH such a triumph, and ultimately more successful. The filmmakers let crazy be crazy and say crazy stuff. The subjects hang themselves. There is no reason for a filmmaker to do that for them. I had a chance to speak to Nichols and Walker at SXSW.
“Chris and I had been looking for sort of a follow-up to Flex is King,” says Michael Beach Nichols, “just doing what documentary filmmakers do, scouring newspapers and stuff like that, and we stumbled upon this story in a New York Times article.” It was August 2013 and Craig Cobb, the film’s defacto villain, had just been outted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They monitor these white supremacist message boards,” he explains, “and they saw this guy Craig Cobb, posting that he had bought some property in Leith so Chris and I read that and we were like, ‘this is insane but it’s in the New York Times, a million people are gonna be following that.’” They kept tracking it, through a big rally organized by members of the National Socialist Movement, and the arrival of the first white supremacist family, Iraqi vet Kynan Dutton and his wife Deborah and their five children. “At that point, we had kind of thought it would go the other way, and after all the media attention Cobb would just be done,” says Nichols, “but once that family moved there, we were like, ‘Alright, let’s see about doing this.’ So we called the mayor. We asked if he’d be interested in filming with us if we flew out there, and he said he would. We asked if any other filmmakers had contacted him and he said no, just local media.”
But that’s just one half of the story, the next obstacle was to get Cobb to agree as well. “We waited until the last minute to call Cobb,” says Nichols, “we figured he could just google us and be like, ‘I’m not gonna talk to these guys, they made a film about street dancers.’
We called him right before we left and he was open to it. He wasn’t going be in town when we were going to be there, but he was open to speaking with us. He told us to talk to Kynan Dutton and Deborah Henderson. At that point, we thought, “Alright, we’re gonna definitely have to make more than one trip.”
Until that point, the team was only planning on doing a short film. They were sure that the whole thing would peter out pretty quickly. They also didn’t have any money for an extended shoot on location. “When we got out there,” he says, “we started meeting with people and that’s when we learned that the townspeople had been documenting what had been going on themselves. People like Greg Bruce had been filming the rally, and people had been filming the city council meetings on their cellphones. We learned that there was all this footage to cover what we had missed.”
The team arrived as Leith was passing a city ordinanance that every property had to have sewer and water, a measure to keep people from ‘moving’ to Leith just to be part of the ‘movement.’ They would have to build code-worthy houses.
The week after Nichols and Walker came to shoot. Cobb came back to town and was arrested for walking an armed patrol around his property (the details are a major plot point in the film, so I’ll leave it at that).
At this point in time, the pair were really worried. “We missed it, the story’s pretty much over and we don’t even have an interview with Cobb,” remembers Nichols, “and then, a couple days later, it showed up on YouTube. Someone had posted the armed patrol footage. Apparently it was someone else from the NSM who had come out and stole some of it – we don’t quite know the whole story.”
They cut a trailer, got 20,000 hits in a day on Vimeo, and that led to producers who had some money. “We got a tip that the people in the town were gonna start burning properties, under the cover of night and they didn’t want any media to know about it,” he says, “it wasn’t illegal technically, because they were condemned properties but, they wanted to let us know. So, we went back out there. Met with Cobb in jail.”
They also spoke with Deborah again, who told them she had all sorts of footage of the townspeople harassing her, her husband, and Cobb. “She wanted us to have all that,” he says, including what was leaked to the internet, “because the footage that was on YouTube you know, it was obviously much lower quality, but it also had like, dropped audio, and like, when they were talking to the police. It was kind of weirdly edited. So, yeah she just gave us it clean, everything.”
Because of the weird circumstances by which the team received the footage, despite being there only once before what seems like the mid-point of the story, the film feels like they were there the whole time. It also feels like it was filmed from every side, angle, and viewpoint, like a wildlife documentary with 47 cameras – the whole town, on either side of the issue, was their camera crew.
One of the things I found so fascinating is Nichols and Walker’s ability to get all of these people to talk very honestly about their beliefs. Obviously, they trusted them in some way. Clearly, they had to know the film was not going to be pro-white supremacist. “We were just up front with them from the get go,” says Christopher Walker, “on both sides, saying to the townspeople, ‘Listen, we’re talking with Cobb and Kynan and then with Cobb and Kynan we’re saying ‘we’re talking to them.’ It was a kind of back and forth dialogue. We weren’t a conduit to that dialogue, but we would follow up.”
Kynan and Cobb never look foolish on screen. If you don’t agree with them and you think they’re crazy, that’s because of their beliefs, not the way they express them. If you do agree with them, you think the United States Government oppressed them.
We asked “Don’t you want your side of the story to be told?” says Walker, “and, we also aren’t combatitive people. We told them we’re not here to argue with you about what your beliefs are, we’re just gonna ask you some questions, give us an honest answer, and we’re not gonna manipulate your answers in the edit.’ And they trusted us.”
Nichols believes it also helped that they weren’t a large crew, it was just the two of them. They also didn’t debate their subjects or even let them behind their process. Cobb would sort of ponder sometimes,” says Nichols, “He’d be like, ‘Ah, I hope you guys don’t railroad me.’ And he’s like, ‘You guys are in New York like ahhh, you guys are probably just like left-wing liberals.’ And we just wouldn’t answer it either way. We were just like, ‘We want to tell this story, what’s happening right now, you know. It’s not about us.’”
In the film, Cobb comes across as a charismatic sociopath. “He actually has a lot of self-doubt about his ability to be a propagandist,” says Walker, “the way that he speaks he can kinda get points across, but he was so self conscious when we were shooting. We didn’t include that in the film, but that was sort of interesting.” Nichols agrees, although part of it may have been the ‘success’ of his Leith mission. “I think he was frustrated that more people didn’t come to the town,” he says, “I think he felt like a failure in a lot of ways because he wasn’t able to bring anyone really to the town, apart from this one family [Kynan Dutton and Deborah Henderson].” Technically there are several lots in towns still owned by white supremacists, that Cobb deeded to them. “There’s talk of putting up like, a big swastika statue on one of the plots,” Nichols says, “just to rile the people in the town up.”
One of the most interesting interviews in WELCOME TO LEITH comes with Jeff Schoep, Commander of the NSM, the National Socialist Movement. While Cobb is a bit of an outlier, Schoep is a very practiced, slick spokesmen, with even a bit of a comic streak in him. “He was a nice guy to us,” says Walker, “He came across as just like, a farther right Republican, really in his answers. I mean… Fox news.” Meeting him was a bit of an adventure. It was a pre-season football game in Detroit, where the NSM is headquartered, and they were staying in the hotel with the Cleveland Browns. “So, we meet him in the lobby and then we get in the elevator,” Nichols says, “and there was two or three huge football players in the elevator. So, we’re just going in the elevator with this white supremacist….” In addition to the interview, Schoep provided the team with the footage the NSM had shot at their rally in Leith – “So, he sent that to us,” says Nichols, “and inside there’s the CD that’s their like record, NSM Records. That’s their whole recruitment. The kids listen to the music but you can’t understand what they’re saying in a lot of the songs. Yeah, so we had this like, creepy white power CD.”
For me, WELCOME TO LEITH is an education in politics. So many mistakes were made on each side, there were so many ways it could’ve gone wrong, but in the end, the town survived – and Cobb made his point.
It’s a hard story. Having gone through it, spent time with these people, on both sides, Nichols and Walker have thought a lot about society and how we deal with outsiders. “As we were making the film and then while cutting the film we realized it’s going raise more questions than answers,” says Walker, “because, on the issue of who has a right to a community? What should a community look like? The argument for first amendment is really challenged here. A lot of people come away with this feeling ‘I don’t agree with them, but I agree that they should be able to say it.’ Or, they think, ‘Perhaps we should be looking at hate speech laws like other countries have.’ And we’re hoping that this film puts it out there for you no holds barred. And I think it’s important to have these dialogues because of what’s gone on in the last decade or so in terms of the election of Obama and the increase of these [hate]groups. Hopefully it doesn’t come to a head in terms of real danger. But, things are brewing and I think it’s important that the country has a dialogue about how does the freest society deal with this kind of stuff?”
Nichols agrees, but has an even more chilling thought. “I think Cobb would’ve been successful if he had just a slightly different personality,” he says, “if he hadn’t started putting those signs up all over the place, if he hadn’t started trying to film all the city council meetings and sort of being up in everyone’s face. And I think the people of North Dakota, like Schoep says in the movie, had really no sense of what a white supremacist really was. I think that they would’ve been tolerant of it in some ways if it hadn’t been so extreme. But you know, on the other hand Cobb told us that the reason he had to be so extreme was that was how he could get media attention and basically get more people to come.”
Do not miss WELCOME TO LEITH if you are anywhere near a screening. It is a fascinating film, part horror story, part civics lesson. But more than anything, its how a documentary should be made. If this is not nominated for an Oscar, it’s a travishamockery. Upcoming screenings include Dallas International Film Festival and the Independent Film Festival of Boston as well as Montclair, Riverrun, and Nashville.