Directed by: Michael Beach Nichols, Christopher K. Walker.
It was impossible for me not to think of recent events while watching the documentary, Welcome to Leith. There are currently a group of nonjobs occupying a government building in Oregon to protest government interference in their lives – which prompted Trevor Noah last week to say that the government should just let them stay – that way, all the nutjobs are in one place, and everyone knows where they are. That is kind of what White Supremacist Craig Cobb wanted to do in Leith, North Dakota when he started buying up a lot of property, and giving it to his white supremacist friends. His goal seems to have been to create a white utopia, where they could dominate local politics, and live precisely the way they want to. I also couldn’t help but think of poor Tamir Rice – the young boy gunned down by Cleveland police for the crime of having a realistic looking toy gun. There is a moment where the police confront Cobb, and one of his cohorts, who have real guns, and yet somehow no one gets shot.
Welcome to Leith is a fascinating documentary that has access to Cobb, and his friends, as well as the other locals in Leith – who understandably do not want their town to turn into the white utopia of Cobb’s dreams – and do everything possible to ensure it doesn’t happen. The filmmakers don’t really judge any of the characters in the film – instead it gives everyone enough rope to hang themselves with – presenting their words without comment, and letting the audience sort it all out. It raises interesting questions about intolerance, to be sure, but also about freedom of speech, and how far we are willing to go to accommodate that. As hateful as Cobb and his people are, for the most part, all they really do is talk. What they say is despicable – but do they have the right to say it? Do the residents of Leith have to put up with it? They design rules specifically targeting Cobb and his kind – which if they targeted minorities, would be despicable in itself – but since it’s aimed at the despicable, does that make it okay?
Cobb, of course, makes it easy to hate him. He has no boundaries, will say anything, will mock the murdered daughter of one of his enemies, and post the personal details of people he does not like online – something that may or may not have led to others committing murder. He crosses the line when he grabs that gun, and starts patrolling town, uttering threats, and scaring people. That, no one has to put up with, and of course, they do not – and he’s soon arrested (which he is used to). If he hadn’t done that though, what would the appropriate response to him be?
Welcome to Leith doesn’t pretend to have the answers to these questions – it simply sits back and asks them. There probably is no answer. Freedom of Speech means nothing without the freedom to offend – and Cobb and his kind is nothing if not offensive. What they stand for is despicable. But they have the right to say it, don’t they? But others have the right to be offended by that as well – and to criticize him. But just how far can you go? This is a question with no definitive answer- but it’s an important question to ponder.