“Time for Ilhan”: New Doc Traces the Rise of Ilhan Omar

This behind-the-scenes look reminds us how captivating the new U.S. House representative is—and was, even as a relatively unknown newcomer in 2016
Still from “Time for Ilhan”

In the opening scene of the new documentary Time for Ilhan, we watch Ilhan Omar braid her youngest daughter’s hair. “Are you president now?” her daughter chimes. It’s a quiet, funny moment, but it foreshadows the now-U.S. House representative’s explosive 2016. Omar has no idea that she, a first-time candidate, is on the cusp of unseating 43-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn and embarking on a highly publicized political odyssey as state representative of Minneapolis district 60B, two years before entering Congress.

“What do you have to do to become president?” Omar poses to her daughter. On the wall of her family’s Minneapolis home, we glimpse a list delineating, in pencil, the steps for becoming an astronaut—from earning good grades to passing the test at NASA. “You have to do push-ups like boys,” her daughter laughs. Omar retorts, “Girls can do pushups, too,” before reflecting that, at her daughter’s age, her sisters simply cut off her hair. “Because I didn’t have a mommy, and no one had the patience to do this crazy business.”

As an opener, the scene contains a bit of everything. There’s Omar’s political ambition; her fight against sexism; her background, including an upbringing without a mother, four years of which she spent in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing strife in Somalia; and, “when you meet her for the first time, [it shows her] as an everywoman, as a mom of young children, and it shows her being tender and intimate at home,” filmmaker Norah Shapiro says. “So many women feel like they can’t run for office because of that.”

From here, we follow Omar’s arduous 2016 campaign. We watch her talk with other Muslim women at a cafe, handing out buttons that say, “I wear a hijab. I’m a feminist. Get over it.” We watch her negotiate with her quiet, loving husband at the kitchen table, figuring out who will watch the kids as campaign life eats into their schedules. We watch her flag down indifferent pedestrians, give rousing speeches, thrillingly counter Kahn’s rude condescension during a radio interview, and build a defiant confidence.

The storytelling defines the stakes so tangibly that it feels like a spoiler to look ahead at the national headlines, at the interviews with Rachel Maddow and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, at the cover of Time. For most of us, when Time for Ilhan premieres locally at St. Anthony Main Theatre on December 28, this won’t be the first time we’re meeting her. And that’s actually why the footage feels so important.

Reflecting the Representative

In 2016, Shapiro, a Minneapolis-based director, was on the hunt for a story. A year before, she had released Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, about a Minneapolis teen who competes in a Tibetan beauty pageant, and she wanted to document another woman triumphing against odds.

Shapiro knew Omar’s sister, Sahra Noor, through a community-building nonprofit. Noor had loved Miss Tibet, and when she heard what Shapiro was looking for—a woman in the local Somali community, who was on some kind of quest, who could flip stereotypes about Muslim immigrant women—she knew the perfect person.

“How could I have found a riper, better subject?” Shapiro reflects. “[Omar and I] had an instant chemistry. We liked each other, we connected, our politics connected, our senses of humor connected.” Now preparing to attend Omar’s D.C. swearing-in, Shapiro says, “It’s a beautiful, amazing punctuation to this fairytale as a filmmaker to have this happen. I’m almost speechless about it.”

Everyone should see Time for Ilhan who’s interested in the unglamorous workings of local politics, or if you’re just looking for an emotional ride, living in Minnesota, or keeping tabs on the direction our country is headed. When Shapiro first met the relatively unknown Omar at a Starbucks, she saw in her what we’ve seen on TV. “I could feel it in every fiber in my body,” Shapiro says. “She is the kind of person who exudes something that is going to serve the medium [of film] well.”

There’s the obvious: In an early talking-head, Omar’s mentor, founder of the Women Organizing Women Network Habon Abdulle, puts it plainly in response to Omar feeling too different to step into politics: “I wanted to shake her and say, ‘You want to go in front of the mirror and see how pretty you are?’”

But it goes deeper. There’s Omar’s level-headed, no-bull attitude. During the 2016 Democratic convention, about halfway into the film, Shapiro and her crew strike journalistic gold. A tense moment of vérité filmmaking employs a long lens and a wireless microphone to follow Omar as she confronts Mohamud Noor, the other Somali candidate for state representative, after he refuses to endorse Omar even though he has lost the vote. It’s one of the movie’s most electric scenes.

Then, Omar is simply entertaining—equipped with an empowering sense of humor that she uses surprisingly over the course of 90 minutes, in moments when others might reasonably snap.

Before moving to the U.S., she and other refugees were shown a cheesy propaganda video about America. It served up the suburban, middle-class life they would soon find off-limits. Omar describes arriving in dirty, congested New York City, and her understated delivery reminds you she grew up watching Def Comedy Jam.

In another scene, Omar brings up remarks made by opponent Phyllis Kahn, another Democrat, about her clothes. “Wait, you haven’t heard about that one?” she says to members of her campaign team as they toil in a small office. “There was a comment where Phyllis said that my [head]scarves, over the years, have gotten silkier, my jeans have gotten tighter, and my skin has gotten lighter.” Her eyes sparkle, and the camera captures that heady amusement we feel when something is so outrageously serious that we have to laugh. Omar explains you wouldn’t be able to wrap silk anyway. Then, in a faux-whimper for comedic effect, burying her face in her hands: “It’s not a hat.”

“Look, she has feelings,” Shapiro qualifies, “but she is cool and collected. There were times—believe me—when people around her were falling apart and she wasn’t.”

Omar’s political team saw potential in a documentary, Shapiro says. Omar also trusted Shapiro—critical for a white woman documenting the life of a Somali woman.

“We joked about that, too,” Shapiro says. “They knew that I was white.” The camera crew followed Omar into her place of worship and other Somali spaces. Shapiro’s résumé helped. As in Miss Tibet, Shapiro told stories different from her own in her first film, If You Dare, about a theater company that works with inner-city kids.

“And frankly, I was the only one,” she says. “I was ahead of the game, before anyone else was interested in telling this story. Sometimes, as a reporter, or a storyteller, or a filmmaker, if you’re there and you see a story, you tell that story. You have to be sensitive, of course, and respectful. And, most importantly, you don’t get to tell the story of a community that doesn’t trust you.”

There was a moment, though, when Shapiro thought she would have to shelve Time for Ilhan. After eight months of filming, a few media outlets ran with an unfounded story questioning Omar’s marital status. It stoked Islamophobia and caused Omar, who had just won, to retreat. She asked Shapiro to stop filming.

“That was not the story I wanted to tell,” Shapiro says. Omar re-emerged to set the story straight, and she invited Shapiro to continue. Now, that moment stands out in the film as one of stillness. Eventually, outrageousness demands confrontation.

But the weightiest scene constitutes more journalistic gold. [Brace for emotional spoilers.] Shapiro’s crew trains the camera on Omar as she refreshes, refreshes, and refreshes her laptop, checking for the results of that night’s 60B election. At first, laughing at how long it takes. Then, “I can’t see results!” she cries. “Do you not have Twitter? Somebody check Twitter! Are we on the wrong website?” Everyone seems to have forgotten about the cameras when a member of the team skeptically reads off a tweet: “…we won?”

As she embraces her team, we see a Muslim Somali mother celebrating her mandate to represent Minneapolis.

“That’s part of her package, that ability to connect and make the people she’s representing feel that she’s listening, she sees you, she hears you,” Shapiro says, explaining her power as a documentary subject.

“From my bird’s-eye view, it’s why she won,” she adds. “I think they did it again in the congressional campaign. It’s a different way of campaigning. And we’ll see how it is in governing.”

Time for Ilhan
St. Anthony Main Theatre, Minneapolis
December 28-January 10
Showtimes vary