'Time for Ilhan': Film Review | Tribeca 2018

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
The type of feel-good story we desperately need right now.

Norah Shapiro's documentary chronicles the political campaign of Somali-American Ilhan Omar.

At the beginning of Norah Shapiro's documentary about Ilhan Omar's political run we're informed that no one of Somali descent has ever been elected to legislative office in the United States. By the end of this inspiring film, that fact has (spoiler alert) been movingly put to rest. Time for Ilhan feels like manna from heaven for liberals and progressives who have been in a state of despair since the last presidential election. The film recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Ilhan, who immigrated to the United States with her father when she was 12 years old, proves a compelling central figure for this documentary, which chronicles her campaign for the Minnesota House of Representatives that began in October 2015. A community organizer who had never before run for office, Ilhan emerges as a charismatic, articulate politician devoted to criminal justice reform and environmental issues. The Minneapolis district in which she's running is racially diverse and has a high unemployment rate. It's also so heavily Democratic that the Republicans don't bother to field a candidate.

Ilhan's opponents are the incumbent, Phyllis Kahn, who's held office for no less than 43 years, and, ironically, a fellow Somali, Mohamud Noor, who had been defeated by Kahn in a previous election. Ilhan is the most progressive of the three, but her campaign is slow to gain momentum. The only politician willing to endorse her is Patricia Torres Ray, the first Latina elected to the Minnesota Senate.

The film introduces us to Ilhan's three adorable young children (her little girl asks, "Are you president yet?") and her supportive husband, who's taken a leave from his job to take care of the kids while she campaigns.

The race is not without its tension and hostility. In an interview, the incumbent Kahn says, "My opponent is younger than me, and prettier than me, and apparently to some people, nicer than me because she kind of agrees with anything that anybody asks her about." Even the large Somali community is divided over which candidate to support, with many supporting Noor because of a long-instilled gender bias.

At the convention that will determine which candidate the party will support, Ilhan receives more votes than Noor, who then backs out of the race. But he directs his supporters not to endorse either of his opponents. We see a heated conversation between him and Ilhan in which she accuses him of going against his promise that he would support her if he lost. When no winner is eventually declared, it comes down to the primary in August, when many of Ilhan's college-age supporters won't be in town to vote.

As the campaign grinds on, an exhausted Ilhan sighs, "It's a lot, trying to change the world." She and her campaign workers desperately take to the streets urging people to vote and are often dismissed or ignored entirely.

Ilhan finally wins the election, in a victory that one television commentator declares a "historic upset." But her troubles don't end there. A right-wing blogger accuses her of immigration fraud, claiming that she married her brother to help him enter the country. She subsequently cancels all her public appearances for two weeks (and doesn't communicate with the filmmakers during that period as well) until she was officially cleared by the U.S. Attorney's office.

After the election, Ilhan becomes an instant media sensation, appearing on The Daily Show and contributing to a front-page article in Time magazine. But the joy of her victory is tempered by Donald Trump's ascension to the presidency and the vociferous anti-immigration policies that ensued.

The film ends on a wonderful high note with an end-credits montage showing the wave of women running for and being elected to office since the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton may have lost, but it's becoming increasingly evident that women's role in politics will only be getting stronger in the years to come.

Production: Time for Ilhan LLC
Director: Norah Shapiro
Producers: Jennifer Steinman Sternin, Chris Newberry, Norah Shapiro
Director of photography: Chris Newberry
Editors: Eli Olson, Jen Bradwell
Composer: Tom Scott
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival

88 min.