- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A documentary produced by two New York filmmakers chronicling the saga of a tiny North Dakota town at odds with a white supremacist is being screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah next week.

“Welcome to Leith” took about a year to complete and required several trips to North Dakota, according to Michael Nichols, who along with Christopher Walker raised about $65,000 through crowdfunding and chipped in personal money to complete the film.

It will premiere on Monday at Sundance, one of the largest independent film festivals in the country. Movies that premiere at the Sundance festival often secure distribution deals bringing them to theaters and television.

“It’s the biggest thing that can happen for an independent filmmaker,” Nichols said. “If you’re an athlete, it’s like getting into the Olympics.”

Nichols’ and Walker’s 86-minute film tells the story of Leith and Craig Cobb, who moved to the town of 16 people in 2012, bought more than a dozen properties and set out to recruit others with white-power views to help him take control of the town’s government and turn the community into an Aryan enclave. Cobb and town officials clashed for months before his plans derailed when he was arrested in November 2013 following an armed patrol that scared residents.

Cobb last spring pleaded guilty to menacing and terrorizing and is now living in Sherwood while he serves four years of probation. He no longer owns any property in Leith, where Mayor Ryan Schock said “everything seems to be going along pretty smoothly. It’s kind of been relaxing for a while.”

Nichols said he and Walker were fascinated by the turmoil.

“We really tried to capture what was happening in real time and let everyone speak for themselves,” Nichols said. “We tried to be as objective as possible. We don’t have any sympathy toward white supremacy. However, we thought it was interesting that they were trying to take over this town in a legal fashion … and since the town was so small they had a real shot at doing it.”

Sundance Senior Programmer John Nein said the film chronicles “a rural community’s struggle for sovereignty amidst extremism.”

Schock said he and his wife plan to attend Monday’s premiere, and Cobb said he will be available through video conference to answer questions. Both men spent time with Nichols and Walker and said they have no worries about how they’ll be portrayed in the film.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what they came up with,” Schock said.

Said Cobb: “I think the reason the film will be a hit is the good editing and music, the skills of Mike Nichols and Chris Walker, but also because of the thoughts disseminated in it by myself.”

“Welcome to Leith” will be shown at Sundance for five consecutive days following its premiere. Nichols and Walker hope they can land a distribution deal.

“We always envisioned this to be a film to be seen on the big screen,” Nichols said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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