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Welcome to Leith - East End Film Festival 2015

Wednesday 1 July 2015, by Judy Harris

Watching Welcome to Leith weeks after the shooting in Charleston the stakes are high. The film has at its centre the white supremacist Craig Cobb and is being seen around the world at a time when the reality of racist violence is (momentarily) palpable to a wide audience. Yet even in this context the film’s most powerful element isn’t its depiction of the threat of a white supremacist organisation, but its presentation of the futility of a resistance which fails to cohere and the melancholy of any opposition which lacks a powerful ethical imagination. When Cobb arrives in town the tiny population of Leith, North Dakota firmly articulate their rejection of his particular set of racist beliefs. The residents are likeable, courageous even, putting themselves in potentially dangerous situations and they clearly long for a cause to rally around (‘I’ve not had a fire in my belly for 25 years’ exclaims Gregory Bruce, a local web developer), yet it’s never clear exactly what Bruce and the other anti- Cobb Leithians are fighting for. It is in this capacity that Welcome to Leith provides a truly illuminating depiction of small-town America’s civic culture and conservative discourses of ‘home’, ‘safety’ and ‘family’.

Feelings of empathy and discomfort prevail when residents tell the newly arrived Cobb and his white supremacist allies to ‘go home’. What does it mean to tell a white supremacist to ‘go home’? Does it encourage the idea that everyone has a ‘home’? If so, wouldn’t it be better to burn the home of such a socially destructive force to the ground, rather than to encourage Cobb to return there and set up camp? In fact, setting up a base was exactly what Cobb intended to do in Leith, where land was cheap and the population so minuscule (under 40) that Cobb’s group immigration could, theoretically, gain political control of the town. In any case, discovering the political and economic roots of white supremacist organising is not the concern of the film. At times this lack of analysis is infuriating given that there are so many opportunities to pull apart Cobb’s ideas or to discuss the concept of race itself and its social construction. Rather than interrogating Cobb’s racist, ahistorical and incoherent ideology, or exploring its development in the context of US colonialism, slavery and capitalism, directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker focus on the idiosyncratic responses of the townspeople and their tactics to force Cobb and his national socialist allies out of town.

There are several scenes in which the bravery of the local people is startling, especially given the fact that Cobb and his friends are also pretty well armed. Yet, however courageous the local residents may be, their resistance neither challenges Cobb’s racial logic nor his conservative outlook. Against white supremacy the Leithians invoke ‘family’ and ‘safety’, rather than setting out their own vision for the kind of community in which they want to live. Granted, no one is encouraged to develop these kinds of ideas these days (if they ever were) save for a widespread, superficial commitment to ‘diversity’, but the language and terminology used in the local fight is telling of American ideas of freedom, belonging and individualism (and eventually vigilantism). Despite, or perhaps because of, these glaring omissions the film does provide a unique portrayal of the fate of one tiny, Middle American ghost town at a political and economic crossroads.

Dirs, Nichols and Walker, 2015

Welcome to Leith is showing as part of the East End Film Festival on July 3rd - tickets and more information here:
https://www.picturehouses.com/cinema/Hackney_Picturehouse/film/eeff-2015-welcome-to-leith-uk-premiere

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