The arrival of mysterious outsider marks the beginning of many a great story. Drama depends on disruption, and when a bearded man moves into a ramshackle, two-story house in Leith, North Dakota (population 24), the whole town takes note. One woman admits to wondering if the man would be a good fit with her single mother. Plans change when he plants a Nazi flag in his lawn. The mysterious stranger turns out to be Craig Cobb, one of the nation’s most notorious white supremacists. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker hook viewers right away and the drama rarely diminishes from there. Welcome to Leith is a taut and tensely-edited documentary thriller. Building suspense with the intensity of a narrative feature, it’s an entertaining documentary that delves into the lives of some truly scary people. It also raises questions about the genre itself, interrogating the varying roles of documentary can serve in social and political matters.

When Cobb starts buying up properties with the intention of transforming Leith into “Cobbsville,” a community for white separatists, the residents of Leith are horrified. Lacking the legal right to tell Cobb where he can or cannot live, a few good citizens take Cobb into their own hands. First they stage protests. Cobb basks in the attention, undeterred. He enlists support of the National Socialist Front, the nation’s largest neo-Nazi organization at the time, and they become vocal defenders of Cobb’s mission. The citizen council of Leith attempts to stymie Cobb through regulation (his properties lack water access) and Cobb retaliates by publishing their personal information online.

Nichols and Walker follow Cobb like a shadow and, at times, their attention borders on the sympathetic. Cobb and Kynan Dutton, his Hitler-mustache touting partner, delight in terrorizing the locals while declaring that they are only defending themselves against intolerance. As Dutton insists, white supremacy is an ethnic group like any other and it’s entitled to equal rights protection under the law. They even go so far so to refer to themselves as a “white civil rights group.”

It’s fascinating to see the way Cobb and Dutton seem to relish the media attention. At times, they appear less like political activists and more like showmen. In fact, Cobb gleefully refers to himself as “the most famous racist in the world.” In one unforgettable clip, Cobb appears on a daytime talk show. The host is African-American and she proves that Cobb is actually 13% African. He grins awkwardly at the camera while the studio audience cheers. He’s so pathetic, one almost feels sorry for him.

Incidentally, Nichols and Walker often film other people filming. One of the town’s activists assigns himself a role as a photographer, documenting council meetings and Cobb’s vitriol. On the other side of the debate, Cobb himself carries a laptop, using its camera to incite those around him. By capturing these uses and abuses of non-fiction recording, Welcome to Leith opens up ample opportunities for meta-commentary about the function of documentary itself. It’s a powerful medium and the film constantly reminds us of this fact.

Welcome to Leith captures the tension between one community’s efforts at maintaining order against the unrelenting extremism of a few, but it lacks a satisfying resolution. In the end, Cobb is back where he started: free to do pretty much whatever he wants. Meanwhile, the residents of Leith live in fear of attack. The Southern Poverty Law Center continues to monitor hate groups, but their methods are by no means solutions. Nichols and Walker close the film on a comparatively quiet moment of Cobb, alone in a cheap motel, contemplating his next move. It’s an anti-climactic end but perhaps that’s a good thing. May the fizzled-out conclusion of Leith reflect the fate of all hate groups who have no place in American towns, big or small.

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