Politics inevitably has its ups and down, no matter where you place yourself on the political spectrum. Speaking from my personal point of view, in some ways we’re in a political nadir at the moment, not only in terms of who is in the White House, but also because of the many successful attempts to reduce democratic participation through voter suppression, gerrymandering, and the like. There’s also the increasing tendency of the mainstream media to act as stenographers, publicity agents, and generators of clickbait rather than doing the hard work of investigation and reporting, which reduces the information available for people to use to make informed decisions.
But there are signs of hope, with progressive candidates from previously unrepresented or underrepresented groups winning elections, sometimes against daunting odds. One of those stories is that of Ilhan Omar, who in 2016 became the first Somali-American elected to hold public office in the United States (in the Minnesota House of Representatives), and has since been elected to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing Minnesota’s 5thdistrict (which includes Minneapolis and some surrounding areas). Norah Shapiro’s documentary Time for Ilhan documents her rise to political success while also creating a rich portrait of the candidate as a refugee from the civil war in Somalia, a community organizer, and a wife and mother of three adorable young children.
Time for Ilhan is a straightforward political documentary brought alive by the vibrancy of its central figure and the director’s access to the behind-the-scenes action of her campaign. Whether you support Ilhan’s particular politics or not, it also offers a reminder of how much a political campaign is all about the details, and how a structure that seems on the face of it to offer everyone an equal shot at success (e.g., the caucus system) can be manipulated to do the opposite, and how a detail that should be neutral in terms of the candidates, such as the date of an election, can have a significant influence on the outcome. Maybe no one making the election calendar or the academic calendar considered it, but holding an election on a day when the university is not in session not only reduces student participation in the political process, but also could benefit a candidate if his or her opponent had a lot of support among students.
In the state election, Ilhan unseated Phyllis Kahn, who held the office since 1973. Kahn was a progressive who sponsored measures such as a ban on indoor smoking, but her support came primarily from older white voters, while Ilhan had the backing of university students and the Somali community. Kahn does get some screen time in this documentary, but it’s primarily in terms of her position as the office holder who is comfortable there and doesn’t want to leave, with no depth offered about her political positions or accomplishments over the years. Then again, it’s not her film, so we couldn’t expect to see her treated with the same depth as the film’s primary subject. The third candidate, Mohmud Noor, comes off less favorably, as someone out for himself (a discussion between Ilhan and himself during the caucus is particularly revealing in this regard), and who thinks his Y chromosomes grant him automatic superiority.
Not everything in Time for Ilhan is upbeat—coverage of the 2016 presidential election is included, as is a smear campaign that claimed Ilhan was bigamously married and committed election fraud (neither was true, and she handled the accusations with tact and grace). That’s life—you don’t always win, sometimes the deck is stacked against you, so you have to focus on what’s good and keep moving forward. | Sarah Boslaugh
Time for Ilhan is distributed on DVD by Gooddocs and is also available on multiple VOD platforms.