Two powerful documentaries that explore the dark side of America, past and present.
Welcome to Leith – Directed by Michael Beach Nichols & Christopher K. Walker, screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, through November 22.
61 Bullets – Directed by Louisiana Kreutz & David Modigliani, playing at the Somerville Theatre on Friday, April 24 at 9:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 26 at 3 p.m. as part of IFFBoston.
By Betsy Sherman
A pair of documentaries, one covering danger in our own time in the American West, one looking back to a possible injustice buried by history in the American South, share the outlook expressed by Justice Louis Brandeis in his comment “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The respective filmmakers applaud efforts to expose these controversies, while themselves making films that will get the word out further.
On the surface there is scant room for shadows in Leith, North Dakota. One outsider in Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker’s intense Welcome to Leith likens the flat, mostly treeless stretch of land to a “B-roll for The Walking Dead.” As Mayor Ryan Shock tells us, when he assumed office there were 24 residents (as well as assorted livestock) on its three square miles. His wife says about their neighbors, “Everybody has each other’s backs.” Daily life for these regular folks changed dramatically after Craig Cobb, a player in the white supremacy movement, moved to Leith. Cobb started buying properties to sell or lease to like-minded hate groups. With the idea that the burgeoning oil industry in the state could provide jobs for their followers, Cobb and his buddies envisioned taking over the sleepy city’s government and establishing a beachhead for the neo-Nazi way of life.
Sure enough, flags with swastikas and other, more cryptic, symbols began to sprout like weeds. City council meetings became scary shouting matches. More outsiders swooped in: investigators from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, dedicated to alerting the general public about these hate groups; citizens from the surrounding area, including Native American groups, who came to protest the incursions by the white supremacists; and the international press.
The filmmakers were welcomed into Leith’s homes as tensions mounted. In the face of newcomers who were both bullying and heavily armed, citizens who didn’t have guns got guns (by the way, there was only one black person, and no Jews, in Leith). The media-savvy neo-Nazis wanted their time in front of the documentary camera. Kynan Dutton, sporting a Hitler mustache, is shown baking treats for his wife and child and tells of his aspiration to become a chef. Cobb, too, has his intimate moments with the camera, framing himself as a victim even as he predicts a dire fate for non-Aryans and any whites who would defend them.
There’s plenty to squirm about, not the least of which is whether the newcomers have a point about their first amendment rights being trampled. Thoughts like, well, there was that Skokie march and the ACLU was OK with that barely seem relevant while watching people figuring out how to configure the tables they’re setting up for a town meeting so that they also be used as barricades, or watching Cobb and Dutton prowl the streets with rifles. This feels more like a nature documentary with the assailed farm families as potential prey for the invading predators.
Welcome to Leith shows what Can Happen Here, though instead of the old warning “watch the skies,” those who can stomach it will have to keep their eyes on hate-speech websites.
The gunplay in 61 Bullets took place eighty years ago, but has only recently come under scrutiny. Anyone who’s heard of the charismatic and notorious Louisiana politician Huey Long, who served as governor and then as senator, knows that he came to a violent end. The schoolchildren on a tour of the old capitol building in Baton Rouge in the film’s opening moments are told that Long was shot in its lobby by a Dr. Carl Weiss, who himself was riddled with bullets (61 in all) by the senator’s bodyguards (the kids are encouraged to stick their little fingers into bullet holes in the wall). But although that’s the story that’s been handed down through the decades, it’s murky and distressingly free of factual evidence. Austin-based filmmakers Louisiana Kreutz and David Modigliani use their documentary, which clocks in at just under an hour, to examine both the historical record and the effect that the murders that took place on September 8, 1935, had on the Weiss family.
The camera loved Huey Long, and vice versa, so the historical-background pieces of the movie are animated by clips of the populist’s fiery speeches. One of Long’s descendants recounts how much Huey was loved and hated with probably equal depth. Yet there’s no clue as to why the unassuming, conscientious Dr. Weiss would turn assassin. One Weiss relative interviewed for the film authored a book debunking the story that Weiss was the shooter. The bodyguards, who compromised the crime scene by moving Weiss’s body, may have shot the senator, intentionally or not.
Interviewee Ida Boudreaux, the sister of Weiss’s wife, is the pulse of the movie, with her warm reminiscences of her brother-in-law. But the central figure is Dr. Carl Weiss, Jr., who was three months old when his father was killed. A soft-spoken, dignified man, whose understandably distraught mother raised him in Europe and New York, struggles with the legacy of the father he really never knew. It’s an emotional scene when he overcomes his reticence and speaks at a conference of The Foundation for Historical Louisiana (in front of a panel that includes members of the Long family, which has remained dominant in the state’s government).
The absence of a “smoking gun” doesn’t make the film any less fascinating. There can be no definitive investigation without exhuming Huey’s body: an illustration showing his final resting place, under a massive pedestal on the top of which is a statue of him, makes the unwillingness to overturn this powerful myth, um, concrete.
Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in Archives Management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.