The filmmaker who followed the trajectory of 'fearless' Ilhan Omar

Director Norah Shapiro tells us the story behind her documentary ‘Time for Ilhan’

U.S. Democratic congressional candidate Ilhan Omar poses for a group photo with campaign volunteers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S., October 27, 2018. Picture taken October 27, 2018. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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When Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-­American Muslim woman to be elected to state office in the United States, joining the House of Representatives on the night Donald Trump became President, The New York Times announced her success was "one of the bright lights in the post-election darkness".

In the film Time For Ilhan, which is now available on streaming services, award-­winning Minneapolis director Norah Shapiro followed Omar on the campaign trail, detailing the efforts of the hijab-wearing politician to become State Representative in Minnesota's State District 60B, home to the largest Somali community in the US.

The documentary highlights the political savvy and charm the former refugee needed to defeat the long-serving incumbent Phyllis Kahn, who held the seat for more than 40 years, and fellow candidate Mohamud Noor, a Somali-American computer scientist who split the Somali vote.

“Frankly, Ilhan did not have the majority within the Somali community, contrary to what might appear from the outside,” says Shapiro. “She pulled people from across the spectrum. She attracted so many people from different identity groups to her.”

It was Omar's sister who told Shapiro about the Muslim 30-something thinking about running for government. Shapiro knew immediately that she wanted to make a film about Omar"It would be disingenuous if I didn't acknowledge that I was specifically drawn to her story because of her identity," the director says. "That's absolutely true. But it was not only because of her identity. 

"I wondered what the dynamic of Ilhan, with her identities, what challenging a white Jewish incumbent elder female and a Somali man was going to bring. And actually that Muslim-Jewish issue did not come up at all in that race, which was fascinating to me."

A rising star in the political world

The first time the director met with Ilhan was in a Starbucks. Shapiro was immediately impressed. "It was clear to me that even if she didn't win the election, she was a star rising," Shapiro says.

A still from Time for Ilhan. Courtesy Chris Newberry

They agreed to meet again, this time with both Omar's campaign manager and her communications director. "We had a long talk about what I was hoping to accomplish, what the issues that stood out to me were and how I was going to address any of their concerns," Shapiro says. "I agreed that nothing would be released until after that election was resolved."

Shapiro was granted artistic and editorial independence, access to the inner workings of the campaign, such as strategy meetings, and was also allowed to film Omar's home, including her husband and children. By doing this, Shapiro shows Omar as a person, rather than reducing her to a representation of her race, gender and religious beliefs, which has been a tactic of some of her detractors, as well as her supporters.

'I'm there as a storyteller'

The filmmaker followed Omar around for almost two years, and so Shapiro shows the rough as well as the smooth. After the election in 2016, there were accusations that Omar had been married to two men at the same time and that she ­committed immigration fraud. The presentation of the evidence echoed the furore surrounding Barack Obama's birth certificate.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 21:  Filmmaker Norah Shapiro attends the premiere of "Time For Ilhan" during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Cinepolis Chelsea on April 21, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

A caption in the film says the documentary was suspended for two weeks. "It was very stressful," says Shapiro. "I understood why we were being asked to take a breath and stand back. I guess my documentary brain felt panicked, knowing how much we had invested in time and resour­ces – at that point we had been filming for about eight months. My main concern was that if this went south, that wasn't the story I wanted to put out into the world."

I was a lawyer before becoming a filmmaker, and the question of ethics and obligations is something I'm well versed in.

Shapiro's reaction highlights an important difference between documentary filmmaking and reportage, one being a subjective version of the truth, and the other an objective analysis of the facts (or that's what the rule book says).

"It's a fine line, and something that, in the documentary field, is discussed frequently," says Shapiro. "I was a lawyer before becoming a filmmaker, and the question of ethics and obligations is something I'm well versed in. I'm not there as a reporter, I'm there as a storyteller."

This line becomes even more blurred when there is a lot of fake news circulating. Fortunately, Shapiro did not need to worry, as Omar was able to prove the allegations against her were false, and filming recommenced.

'She’s fearless, like almost no one I’ve ever known'

Omar has since enjoyed a stellar rise in her political career. Shapiro stopped filming before the politician ran for US Congress last year, when Omar became one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, alongside Detroit-born Rashida Tlaib. Omar is also the first minority woman to serve as a US representative from Minnesota.

A still from Time for Ilhan. Courtesy Chris Newberry

This is where the Muslim- Jewish narrative that Shapiro originally foresaw begins to surface. Omar was accused of anti-Semitism last month after she tweeted: "It's all about the Benjamins baby" (a reference to the $100 bill), after attempts to censure her for criticising Israeli policies.

In the immediate backlash, Omar was accused of playing on a religious stereotype about Jews being motivated by money. She responded by saying her remark was aimed at the powerful pro-­Israel lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Nonetheless, Omar issued an apology.  

She was pulled into further controversy on March 9, when the host of Fox News show Justice with Judge Jeanine, Jeanine Pirro, was ­suspended for questioning Omar's loyalty to the US because she wears a hijab. The host argued that it is "antithetical to the United States Constitution".

This kind of fallout, white nationalism, white supremacy, is across the board, and it's toxic and it's a cancer.

Fox News later apologised for the comments, but President Trump weighed in on March 17, when he tweeted: "Bring back @JudgeJeaninePirro," arguing that her suspension was part of a conspiracy.

For Shapiro, who is Jewish, the slurs against Omar are all too predictable. "Partly why I set out to make the film was to dispel some of thatsadly that is a reality, certainly in American life, and the internet," she says. "This kind of fallout, white nationalism, white supremacy, is across the board, and it's toxic and it's a cancer."

Shapiro is still in contact with Omar, and she is able to sum up the politician fairly simply. "My overall impression is that she is extraordinarily driven. She's fearless, like almost no one I've ever known," Shapiro says. "She has a level of authenticity that is incredibly rare and it's why people respond to her."