Director Norah Shapiro’s Time for Ilhan is a fantastic entry into the seemingly large spate of female-fronted political documentaries. (Want more? Check out RBG and Netflix’s Knock Down the House.) We may be living in a chronic dumpster fire, but watching these docs gives a little spark that maybe some good is being done in the world, and Shapiro is ready to do her part. She sat down with Citizen Dame to talk about her latest film, the rise of political activism, and more.
How did you find out about Ilhan’s campaign and decide to tell her story?
I have been friends for a long time with this woman who was a member of the Somali community in Minneapolis. She had seen my previous film and I was having coffee with her one day, talking about what I was thinking about and what I was interested in, and she said, “You need to meet my sister.” So I did and the second I learned about what Ilhan was up to I realized – one of my favorite films of all time, documentaries, is Street Fight, about Cory Booker when he was first running for office. It’s funny, Ilhan used to get annoyed with me when I would say this, but I very early thought this is going to be the “Somali Street Fight.” I kept saying it because it doesn’t matter if you win or lose because it’ll be a great story. It’ll be a great vehicle for this larger exploration of who gets power and what the barriers to that are.
We laughed about that along the way but, honestly, it really did hit me as an incredible opportunity for the lens of looking at these bigger themes. It was very clear to me immediately on meeting Ilhan that she was a rising star, and that if she didn’t win that particular race which was unclear – it was an enormously uphill battle – at least on the front end she was going to very soon. That’s the quick answer. I was also interested in countering a lot of stereotyping that I knew were out there about Muslim women [and] immigrants. I love a political story, and I love a compelling character, and it offered all of that; the stakes were high. It was going to be an opportunity to make show an amazing individual in her quest but also pull the curtain back on the process and make it accessible to people.
How does it feel watching the documentary now considering how the political landscape looks now?
It’s wild although, in other ways, it’s all the more relevant. What tends to happen, understandably so in American politics and in the media coverage, is there’s this focus on the Presidential level and the national, like Congress, Senate, etc. Understandable. Important. But, I actually think, maybe more so in this current context, remembering and realizing about how people get started in politics is vital and crucial. Yeah, there’s been this wave of women getting elected and different kinds of people showing up at the national level, but we’re so far from it being remotely proportionate in terms of representation and reflecting the population.
The need for that to permeate and the way that happens is for people to start out at the grassroots, at the local level. So in a lot of ways it’s more pertinent; it’s more relevant in terms of encouraging people who maybe haven’t thought it was possible, haven’t seen themselves reflected. There’s this whole idea of if you can’t see it, you can’t dream it. I want little girls to go “oh, I’m going to be in Congress one day,” but I also want people who are closer to it to think “Well, I could run for school board. I’m gonna run for school board.” Or the state legislature. All these other places which is how people start. We still have a really long way to go, in that regard and I hope that the film sparks that for people.
What was it like filming the convention sequence where everyone was voting for 12 hours?
It was very crazy. The way that worked was I had, over the course of the day, nine different cameras deployed. There was a lot of doing as much pre-scouting and pre-intel as I could to figure out the people to be following and the procedures to understand and be aware of. I was on the camera very little on that day and I was trying to run around and be everywhere. I had a really great crew and a really great group of people who gave it their all. It was wild and it was emotional. In the edit you can imagine what had to get condensed to make up that scene. That was one of those, in particular that confrontation between Ilhan and her male opponent, cinema verite gold moments that we had Ilhan wired [and] we had cameras trained in the right spot. It was an intense and grueling day, but it was amazing. It was amazing to be able to be on the inside and show all of that.
Was there anything in particular you had to condense that you wish you could have gotten in?
We had somewhere in the vicinity of 400 hours, so when you have roughly an hour and a half [of] real estate you can imagine the darlings you have to ground. There were whole scenes that were cut that didn’t make it in for a variety of reasons. Lots of hard decisions, but ultimately it’s a long process with an extraordinarily talented [group of] editors on-board to help stick to the story we wanted to tell. Walking a line between what information people needed in order to follow the process, but also not drowning people in that and getting too local. There was tons of great stuff that didn’t make it in, but that’s always the case in documentaries.
How has it been for you as a female director in a time where documentaries are showing women in political action?
It’s an amazing time to be doing this. I will say that in the realm of documentary we don’t have the same issues that some of the more commercial Hollywood narrative films do, in terms of women directors getting these opportunities. That said, there are still issues with parity in compensation. This has been an amazing experience for me as a woman director and as a politically active person to be telling this story and then to take this film and put it out into the world in the context of our impact campaign, that’s been a really incredible experience. It’s been my salvation since what happened in 2016. The ability to merge the work between film and larger activism has also been a gift and a privilege. Our whole impact campaign with the film – and I know that’s the case with some of the other films – can be used to further drive home and activate more women, young women, young girls, and other people who haven’t been represented in power to see themselves reflected and be inspired to think “I can do that. I’m gonna do that.” It’s been incredibly gratifying.
I’ve actually been inspired to volunteer with a campaign because of how great this time has been.
That’s amazing to hear because what I’ve always said is ‘okay, I want people to come out of this film to either, number one, say “I’m going to run for office” but number two, not everybody’s going to run for office, so I want people to look at the film and do exactly what you just said; “I’m going to work on a campaign. I hadn’t thought about doing that but I’m gonna do that.” The third ripple or layer out is “well, I might not run for office. I might not necessarily work on a campaign…but I’m going to register. I’m gonna at least vote.” If everybody had, or a tiny percent more had, we’d be looking at a very different situation right now. All of those things are hopes I have, reactions I want to inspire when people watch this film.
What was the period of time like after Ilhan was accused of bigamy and you couldn’t film?
In real time it was disconcerting, to say the least. Anytime you’re told to go away and your cameras aren’t allowed in, and you don’t know what the fallout’s going to be; we were eight months in at that point and I didn’t know what was gonna happen. It was stressful and anxiety inducing. I was also concerned for her and her family, and what that was gonna mean for them on a personal level. Once things calmed down and cameras were invited back in, then, of course, it’s “wow, that’s gonna be an interesting plot point.” You know what I mean? It was daunting as it was happening, but that’s the exhilaration of doing a documentary; when you don’t know what’s going to happen and unexpected things happen. You build trust with your subjects and conduct yourself authentically. You have to be prepared for the unexpected and that’s what happened. Fairly soon thereafter everything was all systems go again, but that is the one point in the movie where we broke the fourth wall and did include the text to explain because we thought that was significant. The cameras were shut down for that period.
I’ll fangirl for a second: What’s Ilhan like just as a person?
What you see is what you get, truly. She really is how she comes off in the film, which is why it’s really important for people to get to watch the film. Now that she’s on this national stage and in the news it’s much more scripted and controlled. She’s incredibly funny. One of my favorite things as I sat watching the film is how many laughs there are. People don’t think of documentaries as having as much laughter, as many laugh lines, as I experienced with audiences with this film. She’s tireless. Honestly, I don’t think she sleeps. She doesn’t eat that much either. She’s fearless. She’s brilliant. She’s stubborn. She has these moments – she’ll say things sometimes that really surprised me. But she is who she is. She is authentically who she is and that had a lot to do with why she captured the hearts and minds of so many people in this thing that so many people had tried to do before her, which is taking down this incumbent. We’ll have been at Q&As after film screenings and there’ll be all kinds of people in the press to get to her, to talk to her; people want their one on one time. I will watch her turn to the young people, teenagers, and talk to them and give them her attention like nobody else is in the room. There will be hordes of people and it’s just what she does and who she is and what she cares about. It really is what you see in the film. And how she is with her kids and her husband.
Those scenes with her family were my favorite in the movie.
I’m so glad. That was really important to me that those be in there because if women are going to run and not feel like they can’t; she talks about – she did early on and she continues to take things that people talk about as being hindrances and turns those things into assets. So if you have small children….if you have student debt, all of these things, turn them into assets. That’s one of the slogans of Vote. Run. Lead who trained Ilhan and is one of our partners in outreach with the film. It’s the slogan they used which is “run as you are” [and] that’s something Ilhan talks about and something Ilhan did. Men also have to deal with the authenticity question.
What draws you to a documentary subject?
That’s a great question. I would say it is a combination of, it’s not just a topic and it’s not just a person, it’s the marriage of those things. Where there’s a really compelling character, someone with whom I have this feeling in the pit of my stomach; this spider sense, what have you. Charisma, connection, something that I recognize. This person is operating in the context of a larger topic, a larger journey, that will have themes and questions and issues that are more universal. Where there’s conflict or a more complex conversation. Those are the ingredients. And of course it has to be something I’m drawn to in the first place. Certainly questions of cultural identity are important to me; questions of social justice; questions of women and the way they’re portrayed, the way they’re perceived. Those are all things that interest me.