Inside the Attempted Neo-Nazi Takeover of a Rural North Dakota Town
We met the filmmakers of 'Welcome to Leith' to talk about their terrifying and visually striking new documentary about white supremacists in Leith, North Dakota.
What do you get when you combine gun-toting neo-Nazis, frightened townspeople, and the battle for control over a small town in North Dakotan oil country? That's what the documentary Welcome to Leith, now playing at IFC Center in New York, explores with terrifying intimacy.
Filmed over the course of eight months in late 2013 and early 2014, Welcome to Leith chronicles infamous white supremacist Craig Cobb's attempt to take over the tiny hamlet of Leith, North Dakota (population 24, including children), by buying up properties, beckoning like-minded supporters to join him, and generally pissing off everyone who stands in his way.
Tensions escalate as an armed patrol—led by the wild-haired Cobb and his associate Kynan Dutton, a former Iraq veteran with a Hitler 'stache—gets into it with locals. "You fucking kike Jew cocksucker," Cobb shouts, assault rifle in hand. "I'm not shooting you, am I?" Eventually the sheriff's department is called in, and the incident leads to their arrest and Cobb's eventual guilty plea to one count of felony terrorizing and five of misdemeanor menacing and effective removal from the town.
Watch an exclusive clip of Cobb and Dutton's armed patrol from 'Welcome to Leith':
From Cobb's initial arrival to city-council meetings aimed at driving the white supremacists out, to the confrontation, to the literally scorched-earth fallout—filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker provide uncommon access to longtime residents and white supremacists alike for a bracing look at rural Midwestern life confronted by racism and armed threat. Incorporating visual and musical cues from Westerns and horror, the Brooklyn-based Nichols and Walker have created a gripping, stylish, and very scary feature documentary that also feels like a genre film, with beautifully desolate b-roll, gripping narrative, and a dread-ratcheting minimalist score.
I met Nichols and Walker last week at the VICE office in Brooklyn to talk about what drew them to Leith, the intersections between documentary and horror, and what it was like to meet "one of the most famous racists in the world."
VICE: I read that you became aware of the situation in Leith through an article in the New York Times. What first interested you about the story?
Michael Beach Nichols: It was just so bizarre, and it was happening in such a small place. So to us, as filmmakers, it just felt like we could go there and cover everything, and we could talk to everyone. It just seemed like this little bubble of a conflict happening, that you could just document the entirety of it.
I'd been to South Dakota before, so I knew what it looked like in the region, and it's just cinematically incredibly striking. Also, I think it's rare in documentary, that you get a so-called "villain," and a so-called "hero." And that was what this story presented in a lot of ways, and obviously we like the shades of gray––no one's a clear hero, no one's a clear villain––but this story had that.
[Christopher] emailed me the article, and my first response to it was, I wonder if Cobb would talk with us, and that morphed into: We really only want to make this film if he will, and if we can have both sides. Because we've all seen documentaries about white-supremacist hate groups, and it's all one-sided, and they're not really included or given a say in why they believe what they believe.
Christopher K. Walker: Or it's all them.
Nichols: Or it's experts telling you why they are [racist]. I mean, we do have some of that, but it's all in context, because the Southern Poverty Law Center went there, and broke the story.
Watch another exclusive clip from 'Welcome to Leith':
You've described Welcome to Leith as "kind of like a Western." The film has an impressively strong sense of structure: I really felt the building sense of conflict toward a kind of final showdown, like in a western—or even a horror movie. How important was it to you to have a sense of drama and tension to the documentary?
Nichols: I think it was unavoidable. And building on that idea of us being able to cover everything, we also arrived in town to find that the people who live there had been documenting each other the entire time, and were very eager to share that footage with us as proof of being antagonized, by [whomever] was on the other side.
Walker: There was a very natural editing process, in the way that everything was laid out chronologically, which is very rare for a documentary. It just seemed to have event after event after event, it kept unfolding, and it was interesting.
Nichols: After our very first trip there, we wanted to use the tropes of horror films, and of Westerns, to make this almost a genre film, because it felt like that. So that's why we used the glidecam, and the Evil Dead sort of perspective of the patrol, sort of weaving and floating around, all the slider stuff, just to create this ominous...
Walker: We're very into this sort of movement in documentary, of breaking away from the talking-heads explanation, and allowing more cinematic language to be used. So we were fortunate enough to be able to utilize that for this film.
"[The residents] really felt like the police would take a long time to respond, and so they had to take matters into their own hands." —Michael Beach Nichols
Who are some of the filmmakers you see as part of that movement, or that you look to as influences?
Nichols: I think the Ross brothers films have a great, pure verité approach. Rich Hill... yeah, this idea of the ecstatic truth rather than the documentary where every fact is laid out for you. Just being open to ambiguity, and more of the emotional truth, rather than the didactic truth.
[At first] we tried to do that Errol Morris-style, very wide interviews, where you can see all the environment, where they're located. And so that was our thought—let's do this very Errol Morris-like short on this town, because we had no idea where it was gonna go. And then, obviously, everything exploded and it became a feature. But then, when we edited it, we also had this conscious decision, like, "OK, we're gonna start it off like your typical documentary, with interviews, and talking heads, and they're all explaining it." And gradually, after the first ten minutes or so, that's completely shed. Except, I guess, with Cobb in jail.
Could we talk a little more about the horror element? The writer from the Southern Poverty Law Center describes Leith "like B-roll to The Walking Dead." Was horror a significant influence to you both on the film?
Nichols: Yeah, the horror elements came out, especially in how we shot all the B-roll. It was more how we decided to use the cameras to film what already looked very desolate and abandoned. When we first got to the town, we got stuck in this ditch on our way to interview the mayor—we were stuck for, like, three hours. We couldn't figure out where we were, and we had to call him to pull us out. And that gave us the introduction to [the fact that] if we mess up out here, it can take a really long time to get help. Which is something, obviously, that's true for all the people who live there. They really felt like the police would take a long time to respond, there weren't that many police, and so they had to take matters into their own hands.
So Chris and I went into that environment... it's like, there's no paved roads, there's one business––it's a bar that opens at three or four. But if you're there before that, there's nowhere you can really go in the town and know if someone's going to be in their house or not, or even if the house is inhabited.
We just wanted to do these very 70s-style, controlled, slow push-ins, slow back and forth, almost Ti West style, like in House of the Devil. And then all the glidecam stuff, that was super Sam Raimi. We were really excited to be trying to do that stuff, cause it just looked so creepy and first-person POV.
Walker: That was a big, big part of that. But once we were in the action with people, it was just verité. Whenever we could control a situation, as far as how it was shot, we would try and make it look kind of creepy. Which was not hard.
There's an amazing moment where Craig Cobb brags that he's "one of the most famous racists in the world." What was it like to meet him for the first time?
Nichols: I called him on the phone, before we went out there, to ask if he'd be willing to speak with us. We were pretty nervous that he would say no, but talking on the phone, he was absolutely polite. He said he was going to be out of town the first time we went, but might be open to speaking to us at a later date. And after that first trip, less than a week later, that patrol [where he and Kynan Dutton were arrested] took place. When we actually met him face to face it was through glass, in the jail. He was shell-shocked, almost. He seemed very meek, and very polite, and sort of deferential, in a strange way.
[He was] just incredibly different in his persona than what we'd been reading about and seen footage of, this sort of confrontational guy that wanted to instigate these sorts of conflicts. And we didn't experience that at all with him when we were interviewing him in jail, [but] we saw sparks of that once he was released again.
In the process of making this film, were there things that you were surprised to find out about Cobb, about the mindset of him and his allies?
I think something that was unexpected was this idea of victimization. It seems like what the white-supremacy movement is sort of built around right now, is this idea that the white race, the shifting demographics in the country are changing in a manner such that whites will no longer be a majority. There is this sense of wanting to protect their culture. So, that was sort of interesting, because when I was coming into it, [expecting] the old white supremacy was about slavery and the subjugation of others, and now has become this sort of defensive thing.
I think that's been a lot more successful in terms of getting people to embrace this ideology, that, "No, this isn't a hate movement—this is a white civil rights thing. This is about protecting your family, and just being separate." The whole separatism thing, I think is kind of fascinating too, how they want to be called "white separatists" in a lot of instances, instead of "white supremacists."
"The ideas and the visuals are scary enough." —Michael Beach Nichols
Are you worried that Leith residents such as Lee Cook and Mayor Ryan Schock might be, as a result of the film, on the receiving end of further antagonism from Craig Cobb, Kynan Dutton, or their sympathizers?
Nichols: Ryan came out to Sundance with his family, and Lee Cook and his family have also seen the film. They definitely are the targets of a lot of antagonism online from the white supremacists anyway, just because Cobb was arrested, and spent a lot of time in jail. As far as the film opening them up to more? Yeah, I think it will. Unfortunately, I think that there's probably some white supremacists in the country who haven't heard of the Cobb thing. It was pretty big, so I would think a lot of people would have heard about it, but I'm sure the film will expose some people who maybe didn't know the story, and those people will be upset about what happened.
It's always kind of a terrifying experience to show the film to people that are in it. Cobb has not seen the film yet, and neither has Kynan. So that's something that is going to happen at the end of the month, when we go back out to Bismarck and the film opens there.
What do you think the Bismarck screening is going to be like?
Nichols: I'm sure some people are going to be frustrated with the film because Cobb and Dutton have a lot of screen time. So I think that will trigger a lot of things for people that lived there and went through it. They could definitely accuse us of giving him a platform, whereas we view it as, "You should know what these people are thinking, and what they're saying." Being more informed is a lot more powerful. And also it heightens [the residents'] experience, what they went through.
Do you think Cobb and Kynan will like it?
Nichols: I think so, yeah. I think they'll appreciate the fact that we let them speak. A lot of filmmakers wouldn't do that. We tried really hard to not use sinister music, if it was directly playing off a scene of something that Cobb was doing or what Kynan was doing. The ideas and the visuals are scary enough.
On Motherboard: Can You Be Outed as a White Supremacist on Twitter?
This film feels particularly contemporary, not only because of the Charleston shootings and the rise in white supremacist-linked violence, but also in the way so many citizens are self-documenting events with cell-phone videos, laptops, and the like. How much has the public's increased accessibility to technology influenced your own documentary-making process?
Walker: We wouldn't have been able to make this film without it. Straight up. It's not something that we seek out as something that we would want to have, if we were making another film, but if it made sense to help fill in the story.
Nichols: Chris and I are a small crew. We go to a place and start filming. Obviously, people are not naïve enough to assume that everything is just happening as if we weren't there. We have an effect on what's transpiring. And I think when people are documenting themselves, that's become so ubiquitous, so people are very used to that. I think you can get at something that's perhaps closer to the truth if it's that sort of amateur documentation. And that's why found footage horror films are so scary... and we have a found-footage horror element too, with [footage of] that patrol. You start watching something that you can immediately tell is hand-held, and lower quality, and it feels more real... it feels scarier, in a way. So I think that it allowed us to get scenes that, had we filmed them ourselves, would have been really strange to film.
It's silly to theorize or speculate, but what do you think, if you were there, you would have done?
Nichols: I'm glad we didn't have to make that decision. We would have filmed it, but it would have felt really uncomfortable, and it probably would have been really tricky to figure out the editing of something like that. And the questions we'd be facing about filming something like that. If we had been filming it, it becomes this very ethically shady area where, we're excited about the footage that we're getting... but are we becoming accessories? Luckily, that stuff was filmed for us.
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Welcome to Leith is now playing at IFC Center in New York. The directors will be in attendance during 7:45 PM screening on Thursday, September 10.