Film Review: Time for Ilhan

Lively and inspiring documentary profile of the first Somali-American legislator in the U.S.
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Ilhan Omar is the first Somali-American legislator in the United States. She and her family fled to Kenya when Somalia’s civil war began in 1991, and then four years later joined the wave of Somali immigration to Minneapolis-St. Paul. In Time for Ilhan, a documentary screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Norah Shapiro chronicles the charismatic 35-year-old’s decision to run for the state legislature in a district of Minneapolis known as “Little Mogadishu,” where the average household income is less than $28,000 a year. The twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul are home to one of the largest college campuses in the country, in a state that has the fifth-highest rate of student debt.

Ilhan ran against a white incumbent, Phyllis Kahn, a Native New Yorker who had been in office for over four decades, and another Somali, Mohamud Noor, who had attempted to unseat Kahn in a previous election. Ilhan’s platform attracted university students as well as progressive Somali women. The film unfolds in 2016, in a city where all the candidates are Democrats, and the assumption was that Hillary Clinton would be the next President of the United States. Shapiro’s documentary opens in Ilhan’s home (everyone calls her by her first name), where she is caring for her three young children. Ticking off “all these things in my head” that tell her she cannot win, including her hijab, it is apparent from the start that none of these will deter her.

Shapiro skillfully introduces Ilhan, her husband Ahmed and their children, and the district they call home, as well as the undercurrents of conservative family values that swirl around them. At one point, Ilhan complains to the filmmaker that her Somali constituents keep asking if her father and her husband approve of her candidacy. Noor’s support base appears to be elders, and is more male-dominated than Ilhan’s, while Kahn’s seems to be essentially white, although in the 1970s she was a trailblazing female legislator. Ilhan’s constituents and campaign workers are unabashedly young, feminist and from diverse races and classes. Her campaign chair, David Gilbert-Pederson, is Filipino and the son of adoptive parents.

Shapiro’s fly-on-the-wall footage of her subject and the campaign itself, from the first fundraising party to the opening of a campaign office, and the caucuses and the primary are intercut with brief direct-to-camera remarks, mostly from Pederson, Habon Abdulle, Ilhan’s mentor, Ahmed and Ilhan. The documentary’s deft introduction to the election process in Minnesota includes wonderful moments, such as a sharp exchange between Kahn and Ilhan on a radio show devoted to the race, and Ilhan’s argument with Noor during the caucus vote that indicates she is made of stronger stuff than her beguiling smile portends. A terrific picture edit (by Jan Bradwell and Eli Olson) and a somewhat unobtrusive original score (by Tom Scott) and mix (by James LeBrecht), that set a pace rather than underlining emotions, result in an exciting and entertaining documentary.

Time for Ilhan is not a rags-to-riches story—Ilhan’s family was affluent, educated and politically active in Somalia—but instead a story about immigrants who embrace American ideals, and who are sometimes disappointed by them. Ilhan is obviously buoyed by her ambition, and by a husband who says that she has been a “profound, tangible influence” in his life. Ahmed takes a leave of absence from work during the campaign to care for their children. Shapiro briefly depicts the strain that places on their relationship, and Ilhan’s own doubts about her choices. “At some point,” she says, “I’d like to hide under my bed.” Ilhan’s father, who schooled her in the promise of democracy, is apparently proud of her candidacy.

The documentary suggests that the young woman’s faith balances her life, but the candidate Ilhan also expects worldly support from an imam, and from fellow Somalian Noor, with mixed results. In the last hours of the primary, as Ilhan and Pederson stand on a street corner urging people to vote and are rebuffed or ignored, Ilhan remarks to no one in particular that people in some parts of the world “are dying for this right.” That is not an observation any American candidate would make. While Shapiro does not linger—Time for Ilhan’s pace leaves little room for reflection—Ilhan’s statement marks what is arguably the most profound passage in the documentary, one that leaves little doubt about what immigrants, especially diaspora survivors, have historically contributed to our democracy.

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