East End 2015: 'Welcome to Leith' review

★★★★☆
A terrifying portrait of a community under siege from white supremacists, Welcome to Leith (2014) arrives as America is waking up to the realisation its biggest terrorist threat could be the enemy within. A tiny hamlet in North Dakota, the former railroad town of Leith only recorded a meager population of 16 adults and children in the 2010 census. The town's so small that their mayor also moonlights as the school bus driver. Therefore its understandable that the arrival of a reclusive man called Craig Cobb was met with intrigue and a fair bit of excitement by the local community. However this sleepy town made headlines in 2012 when the truth about Cobb was learned.

It was discovered that he was a notorious white supremacist and was attempting to buy up the town's vacant properties to create a safe-haven for his ideological kinsfolk. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker's documentary charts this tumultuous period, filming throughout Cobb's residency and observing how the collective fear of the town escalated into a herd like mentality of gun-waving tribalism. By adopting an eerily voyeuristic approach and filming the barren North Dakota landscape with a cold, penetrating gaze Welcome to Leith creates a bone chilling atmosphere not too dissimilar to a horror film; leading the audience down a compelling, yet genuinely unnerving path into the darkest rudiments of the human psyche. A post-financial crisis ghost town, Leith looks like a forgotten Wild West outpost, its boarded homes and dirt track roads housing the ghosts of a bygone era. 

By capturing the town's sense of vulnerability through simple yet effective editing and sound design the filmmakers ratchet up the tension, distilling the anxiety of this insidious onset of white extremism and drip feeding it to the audience one day at a time. That's not to say that the bigger picture is ignored, and interviews with agents of the Southern Poverty Law Center about Cobb and his fellow extremists bequeath the film with some much needed objectivity, highlighting the unsettling rise of similar hate groups throughout America. Frighteningly even-handed, Nichols and Walker aim to dissect the conflict evoked by this clash of varying notions of freedom. It might feel irresponsible to give a man like Cobb such a public platform to preach his gospel, yet the film's impartiality only acts to amplify the hate that underlines his beliefs. 

The true horror of the film comes not from Cobb, or his Hitler moustache-touting accomplice Kynan Dutton, but from the reaction their presence elicits. Demonstrating how fear can drive even the most placid of communities towards violence, it soon becomes clear that, despite their ideological differences, both groups are united by their reliance on firearms; with fear the catalyst behind each group's motives. Welcome to Leith is a fascinating document of post-9/11 America. Underlining how terror has supplanted propaganda as the dominant tool to manipulate society, Nichols and Walker give a powerful example of how this collective anxiety has led to a rise in far-right groups and, maybe more worryingly, increased support for the preservation of the second amendment. Ultimately proving that the only real thing to fear is fear itself.

The East End Film Festival runs from 1-12 July. Programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at eastendfilmfestival.comFor more of our coverage, follow this link.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble

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