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SXSW: Exploring The Limits Of Free Speech In ‘Welcome To Leith’ 19

Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker Photo: Stephen Becker

AUSTIN – In 2013, the town of Leith, N.D., had a population of 16 adults – 24 if you count the kids. The only business was a small bar. The mayor had served on the city council since he was 16.

It was the perfect target for Craig Cobb.

The noted white supremacist figured if he could buy property in the town and convince like-minded people to move in, before long he’d have all the votes he needed to turn Leith into some sort of Nazi wonderland.

Christopher K. Walker and Michael Beach Nichols read about Cobb’s plot in The New York Times. Two months later, they were on the ground in Leith documenting the residents’ fight to preserve their town.

The resulting documentary, Welcome to Leith, is impressive in its evenhandedness. The townspeople explain their obvious objections. Cobb and his followers argue for their free speech and right to participate in the democratic process.

In fact, it’s kind of surprising how much access Cobb gave to the directors.

“Part of it I think is just the fact that we were a small team,” Nichols said after Friday night’s screening. “Honestly, I think it’s also – neither of us are Jewish. We’re both white. I think that helped ease him when he was around us. And I think because we’re both relatively young, he potentially thought we could be swayed. I mean, this is all speculation, but he certainly asked these questions of us.”

Nichols and Walker gained the trust of people on both sides of Leith’s divide. And by the end of the film, there’s really no reason to think that either side would be upset by how they come off.

“We made a very conscious decision to not make this film if we could not have both sides represented,” Walker said. “The trick to getting that was asking the questions … and not interjecting our own point of view within that process.”

It’s journalism 101 made particularly tough in this case, when, let’s face it – society wouldn’t have a lot of trouble judging who’s right and who’s wrong here. As we say in the business – sometimes you’ve gotta let people hang themselves with their own noose.

But Walker says that the real reason for their dedication to objectivity is they wanted to make a film that could ask big questions.

“We wanted this film basically to spark a big dialogue in terms of what does free speech mean in a democratic society,” he said. “A lot of countries around the world ban hate speech. What would that do to our country if we ban hate speech? Should we ban hate speech? Should we not ban hate speech? What would that do to the country known for being the freest in the world?”

Welcome to Leith will play the Dallas International Film Festival in April. If you don’t catch it there, look for it on PBS series Independent Lens next year.