There’s a moment in Norah Shapiro’s documentary, Time for Ilhan, when Ilhan Omar says men can just wake up one day and decide to be a politician while women aren’t afforded that luxury. Yet Omar herself defied the odds to become the first Somali woman ever elected to office in the United States and her journey is documented in Shapiro’s exhilarating documentary. It’s ironic watching Time for Ilhan, itself so positive, in a time where politics are bringing nothing but fear and anger. Shapiro’s documentary inspires through Omar’s optimism and leadership, reminding audiences of the power of government and the need for courage in local leadership. Ilhan Omar is a hero for women telling them that there’s no reason they can’t lead a nation, even when the nation is giving them a reason not to run.
Shapiro details the election campaign of Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American woman living in Minnesota between 2015 and 2016. The young married mother is up against a series of obstacles including a decades-long incumbent, personal in-fighting with a fellow Somali candidate, and the mounting tensions leading up to the election of Donald Trump.
As I said to Shapiro during a recent interview, it’s been heartening watching the string of political documentaries come out, all focused on women in office. (Other titles include the recent RBG and the upcoming Knock Down the House about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.) Time for Ilhan is about more than just a lone woman running for office, it’s about presenting a strong, confident woman defying the odds others have defined for her gender. The film opens showing Omar’s day-to-day life, brushing her youngest daughter’s hair.
Throughout the film’s runtime we’ll return to the Omar household, where Omar’s husband negotiates what time she’ll come home and willingly takes a leave of absence from his job to look after their children. During one dinner table scene, Omar’s daughter asks why her mother is always gone; she’s not mad, but wants clarification on what her mother does. It is Omar’s eldest daughter who responds that what their mother is doing is for “the greater good.” In a year where we’re finally seeing Hollywood realize women can go into the world and not be persecuted by their families for it, it’s amazing watching a real-life family understand the sacrifices their mother is making, and still love her for it.
Playing out amongst the backdrop of the Trump/Clinton presidency, it’s almost ironic watching Omar succeed. Her campaign is filled with bright, determined people who want change, many of them students. A key platform for Omar’s campaign is to get students at the University of Minnesota to come out and vote, particularly as she’s concerned about the state of student loan debt. Her campaign is filled with chanting and optimism, but there’s no denying the intelligence of the young people around her. At one point they’re seen negotiating whether it’s worth it to knock on doors during a hot day, one of many moments where Shapiro shows the human effort that goes into political campaigning. This being local politics it’s not all about PACs and raising money. Omar takes to the streets of Minnesota, standing in front of grocery stores and going door-to-door in the middle of summer.
A key moment comes during a major convention wherein the Democratic party will endorse a candidate who gets a certain amount of votes. Shapiro covers this with all the determination of a 1970s political thriller, having the camera go between the convention floor and the backstage work of Omar’s interns. A 12-hour session of debates and politicking sees Omar confront her opponent, a Somali-American male who hasn’t received enough votes, to endorse her. He refuses and the camera captures Omar drop her, to this point, determined but pleasant in favor of determined and impassioned. She reminds him he’ll be “on the wrong side of history” – a statement that turns out to be true – but also captures a real moment of grit. Omar is never mean, but she understands what she wants and realizes how often men stand in a woman’s way.
The national election isn’t a focal point of the documentary, though it obviously looms over every scene. It’s as funny as it is sad to watch Omar’s victory at the local level be overshadowed by the backslide that happens with the presidential election. Omar’s “Oh my God, they actually did it” at seeing the election results mimics most of our feelings about that night. And yet to still leave Time for Ilhan with a smile on your face shows the power of a personality that is engaging. Ilhan Omar leaves us with hope at the end of it all, despite how bleak everything looks.
Norah Shapiro captures a slice of life that’s as commanding as it is heartening. Time for Ilhan will restore your faith in the political system, small as it may be, and show you the revolution that’s being started and continues today!