Welcome to Leith (2015)
I used to be utterly terrified of Freddy Krueger. I had never seen Nightmare on Elm Street (and to this day, I still haven’t) but I vividly remember the poster that hung in my local video store; that clawed hand creeping over the head of teenager. I can recall a Halloween where I fled one particular candy purveyor as they revealed themselves in full Freddy attire. That’s the type of thing that scares us as children: monsters. The horror genre is happy to indulge in these supernatural fears, but as we grow older the realization that all of this is fake creeps in and begins to overcome that kneejerk repulsion. The thing is, while disfigured nightmare murderers offer an escapist terror, real life is scary enough on its own. Welcome to Leith may be categorized as a documentary, but it is assuredly an extremely troubling horror as well.
Even without actually being there, we feel welcomed by Leith. It is a welcoming place.
It is really quite impressive just how well Welcome to Leith is able to craft a horror story out of the real. Its setting is remote and tranquil. Leith is the type of town that you drive through as quickly as possible, because its ghostish nature is unsettling to the uninitiated. However, to those that live there, it is completely home. The community is strong and stable, and the residents are nearly proud of their miniscule nature. The mayor is a farmer, but he is also the school bus driver. That is what Leith is, a community that relies and thrives on the tiny support system they have developed, something quintessentially American. Even without actually being there, we feel welcomed by Leith. It is a welcoming place.
That’s what makes its descent into hatred hit so hard. Directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker have quickly ingratiated this little spot of America to us. They don’t want us to feel like voyeurs, but insiders. White supremacist Craig Cobb isn’t just threatening to dismantle and repurpose some alien town; for all intents and purposes, it is our town, it is our country.
Despite this strong emotional draw to Leith, Nichols and Walker maintain an impressive degree of journalistic integrity. While we become close to the people of Leith, the directors do not presuppose to categorize either side as right or wrong. They are not just telling us a story, but unveiling it as it happens. The dread and suspense build constantly, becoming greater and greater as the stakes rise. For the people of Leith, this is a deeply personal story, and while Nichols and Walker certainly maintain their distance, the people are so open and free with their emotions that you feel connected. It is the sign of not only fantastic documentarians but also highly skilled storytellers.
The nefarious villainy is an undercurrent that sneakily slinks its way into every corner of Leith.
It would be so simple to outright vilify Cobb and the legion of hate-mongering neo-Nazis and white supremacists. However, Nichols and Walker are always careful to avoid this simplification. While they certainly offer up plenty of evidence to inform the viewer’s assessment of them, it always remains our choice. In fact, the interviews with the leaders of these misguided hate groups are often the most troubling, not because of their abrasive language, but for how level headed and reasonable they can sound. There is a business-like attitude and something nearly political in their machinations that present a front of reason. Sure, they often cannot maintain this composure and end up going off on long rants filled with ethnic slurs. But for a long while, they are calm and collected, smiling as they talk to us. The nefarious villainy is an undercurrent that sneakily slinks its way into every corner of Leith.
The more grandiose story comes to a suitably bombastic end, alluded to at the film’s beginning. For many lesser documentarians, this would have been it, some explanation text would run and the credits would roll. But directors Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker realize that not only is this only the first bit of a much longer story, but to end here would be a disservice to the people of Leith. What was a clear battle of good vs. bad becomes mired in politics and the labyrinthine structure of the judicial system. On the surface, Welcome to Leith is a disheartening story of the effect hate can have on the simplest and most welcoming of small towns. But buried within is a commentary on America and our beloved democracy itself. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but we must remember that freedom is afforded to all citizens. Welcome to Leith is a terrifying reminder of the horrors that that freedom can allow.
On the surface, Welcome to Leith is a disheartening story of the effect hate can have on the simplest and most welcoming of small towns. But buried within is a commentary on America and our beloved democracy itself. Freedom is a beautiful thing, but we must remember that freedom is afforded to all citizens. Welcome to Leith is a terrifying reminder of the horrors that that freedom can allow.