Time for Ilhan (Norah Shapiro, 2018) 4 out of 4 stars.
One never knows, when making a film, how current events might affect its release. Back in 2016, when director Norah Shapiro (Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile) first started following Ilhan Omar as she mounted her challenge to long-serving Minnesota State Representative Phyllis Kahn, there was no way she could anticipate that, just three years later, Omar would not only have won that seat, but then moved on to the United States House of Representatives and, just a few months into that term, be mired in controversy over ostensible anti-Semitic remarks. Timely does not begin to describe the serendipitous set of circumstances that have made this particular moment a potentially auspicious occasion for the release of Shapiro’s new documentary, Time for Ilhan.
Or not, as it seems that many people on both sides of the issue have already made up their mind how to feel. Still, since art always holds the power to make complex issues more accessible, perhaps this movie will at least allow those who see in Ms. Omar a symbol of one thing or another to perceive the real person in all her three-dimensional humanity. If nothing else, Time for Ilhan makes extremely clear why voters in Minneapolis’ District 60B chose Omar over the veteran Kahn: she is smart, focused, energetic, empathetic, very charismatic, and possessed of supreme confidence in her own beliefs and an enviable ability to articulate them in a way that connects with her constituents. A Somali immigrant, she is also Muslim and wears her hijab with pride, which makes her unique in today’s Congress. Given that there is a large percentage of people of similar background in her district – quite different than when Kahn was first elected in the 1970s – it makes sense that they would be open to change. But Omar is much more than her ethnicity and religion: she is a progressive feminist with a deep commitment to policies that help working- and middle-class voters.
She is, in short, representative of a recent shift within the Democratic Party towards politicians who speak to a more liberal ideology, away from the centrist positions championed since Bill Clinton came to power in 1992. Along with Knock Down the House, currently making the festival rounds, and which profiles Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (among others), Time for Ilhan offers a look at one possible future for the nation. And unless one is a jingoistic, sexist white supremacist, that future looks bright, no matter the events of the past month that are roiling the Democrat’s new congressional majority. We shall see what we shall see, but for now we can hark back to the more innocent, optimistic time of Omar’s first campaign and enjoy this sharp, well-made portrait.
Shapiro starts at the beginning, as Omar gathers her team, shows us her supportive family (including her loving husband and adorable children), interviews all involved in the march to victory – Phyllis Kahn, as well – and ends with a brilliant montage that brings the events of 2016 up to the present, drawing connections from then to the rise of more women in office today. It’s a highly engaging narrative, made all the more so through Shapiro’s incisive storytelling skills. Think you know Ilhan Omar? Perhaps she has, indeed, made missteps since leaping to the national stage, but: a) so have others; and b) she is much more than the reductive reaction to her comments about Israel suggests. Check out this movie for a closer look. As the title suggests, this should be her time.