As current events and news cycles attest, we are living in a time of increased political and religious extremism. While extremism appears in different forms, it is essentially a radicalism that extends beyond rational thought and the bounds of normal reason. It generates a space where dialogue and debate have no place, as those advocating their views in extreme forms lack an ability to hear another side, perspective, or point of view. The danger of extremism and the ideologies associated with it rests on radicalized divisiveness, separatism, and in its worst forms, violence against those who fall outside one’s own group or belief system.
We discussed our August film of the month WELCOME TO LEITH with director Christopher Walker. He and his co-director Michael Beach Nichols provide an unflinching look at Leith, North Dakota, where white supremacists attempt to secure a foothold in the small American town in order to spread their extremist ideology.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I am interested in the human condition. The understanding of people and exploring extraordinary circumstances they may be going through. I feel like this is all tied into trying to understand myself more clearly.
Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
I began my career as an editor, which is something I have been interested in most of my life – I like the feeling of putting things together, the satisfaction of a completed project. In my early work as an editor I worked primarily on documentaries with an overt social issue bend. I feel like working on these types of films informed my current sensibilities as a director. There is an importance and place for these films but I have strayed away from this. I’ve grown to approach films with strong subjects or characters which lend to verité filming, letting scenes play out as a scripted film would. We as documentary filmmakers need to give our audiences more credit, the less hand holding the better. I like to remove the stigma of documentary as only a champion for causes or issues. We lose the art of the medium if we ignore the vast tools that filmmaking allows us to utilize.
How and your co-director, Michael Beach Nichols, came across the story of what was happening in the New York Times. How did this discovery develop into a documentary?
My co-Director Michael Beach Nichols and I had been scouring the news for stories that could be interesting as feature documentaries. When Michael came across the story in Leith, we thought it could have a lot of potential. It was certainly something that most filmmakers would look at as a goldmine of compelling story and characters. We followed the story as it slowly developed, but it wasn’t until we read that Kynan Dutton (a white separatist), his wife and five children had heeded Craig Cobb’s call and moved out to Leith to begin work on his vision of an all white enclave that we decided to take action.
We called Leith Mayor Ryan Schock to see if he would be open to two filmmakers coming out to capture what was happening, he agreed to it and started spreading the word of our arrival. Our initial plan was to make a short doc. We weren’t sure how far Cobb would get, or if his plans would quickly fizzle out. We spent ten days in Leith, filming with anyone we could, including Kynan Dutton, Mayor Schock, his wife Michele, Gregory Bruce – as well as Lee and Heather Cook, who lived across the street from Cobb and Dutton. It was unfortunate to learn that Cobb wasn’t in town while we filmed that first trip, he was on the east coast for a talk show taping which would later become an infamous viral video. The week after Michael and I returned to New York City we learned of Cobb and Kynan’s arrest for an armed patrol of Leith. We knew then that this had the legs for a feature documentary.
You incorporate footage collected from many different sources throughout the film, and interview people involved in the story coming from a wide-range of perspectives – creating what feels like a balanced view of what unfolded. Do you think that this is an accurate take away? And how was it for you as a director working with something so sensitive to engage with all the different players in the film and present their perspectives in the way that you did?
Our initial conception of the film was to shoot with as many people from the town as possible, being that the town had 24 residents, this didn’t seem too much of a stretch. With this idea, we also felt strongly that we would not make the film if we could not speak with both sides of the issue and give each side ample screen time to give their points of view. There are too many films that take an overt side, losing subtlety and nuance to issues that are more than just black and white – we searched for the grey areas. We made sure to keep our personal feelings out of it. We set out to make a film which presented both sides of a very sensitive issue and let the viewer make their own conclusions, and also challenge them along the way.
In the months of making this film we were lucky to find that the town residents, as well as Craig Cobb’s camp, had been filming each other. This was a huge blessing in terms of pivotal scenes that we weren’t there to film, the armed patrol being the most important. With all this footage from both sides we were able to put together an objective film that honored our initial intent as filmmakers as well as a more compelling and rounded out documentary.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?
One of the more interesting things I have noticed since the release of the film is the utter shock that something like this could happen in America these days. In more intimate settings, people have questioned what they would have done if it had been their community while also acknowledging the First Amendment as important in protecting all Americans. Can we pick and choose what viewpoints are and aren’t allowed in a free society as long as these views don’t impinge on others?
Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching WELCOME TO LEITH?
People often ask us what they can do to stop people like Cobb from doing something like this again – and the answer is honestly hard to come to. The cleverness Cobb employed in buying property allowed him to use the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to protect himself from housing discrimination based on religion, color and creed. This speaks to how America operates. Democracy is messy!
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
WELCOME TO LEITH is Influence Film Club’s featured films for August 2016. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.
Interview: Isis Marina Graham