HIFF opening film. One of our best political stories is the influx of young, progressive females running for office on the national and local levels. Among the rising stars, along with the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is Ilhan Omar, who two years ago in Minnesota shockingly unseated 43-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn as House Representative for District 60B, and became the first Somali-American legislator in the United States. And in November she is primed to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, taking the seat vacated by Keith Ellison.
Her background: Born in Somalia, she and her family fled the country’s civil war when she was eight. Her family spent four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the United States in the 1990s. She met Ahmed Hirsi, another one-time refugee from Somalia, in Minneapolis when they were both 19. They married and have three children. With her husband’s supports, Omar became an experienced Twin Cities policy analyst, organizer, public speaker, advocate, campaign worker, and finally, candidate for office.
Omar and her 2016 campaign against both Kahn and Mohmud Noor, a male Somali-American she had backed in his failed attempt to defeat Kahn in 2014, is the subject of Time for Ilhan, a splendid new documentary by Norah Shapiro (Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile) that opens the Hamptons International Film Festival Thursday at 4:30 pm at the UA1 in East Hampton. It will also play at 5:45 p.m. on Saturday at the UA2 in Southampton.
Watch the trailer:
From Shapiro’s director’s statement: “As a former public defender, I have always been passionate about issues of social justice and inequities in our society. As a filmmaker, I have always been intrigued by questions of cultural identity, tradition, and belonging, and drawn to stories about strong women who defy expectations and societal constraints. When I was introduced to Ilhan Omar in December of 2015…it was clear to me that her bold attempt, in her own words, as ‘an extreme other’ to take on the establishment and challenge entrenched systems of power fell soundly in the center of all these circles of fascination for me.
I also recognized that in following Ilhan’s attempt to unseat her 43-year incumbent opponent and defeat her male challenger, I would be able to delve into themes about what representative democracy could really look like, while also exploring dynamics of race, gender, and Islamaphobia, all issues that I connect to personally as a white, Jewish, American woman.
What I couldn’t have known at the outset, however, was how profoundly this story was going to fit into a much larger political and cultural moment, and movement—movements—that continue to rapidly unfold and evolve before our eyes….My vision is that Time for Ilhan will serve as a ‘how-to’ for grassroots/local citizens/women of color/young people and anyone who has felt that the political system is impenetrable and hopeless, for how they can show up and make change.”
In April, before the Democratic primary was held for U.S. House representative, I had this conversation with Norah Shapiro and Ilhan Omar, about Time for Ilhan and the campaign that launched what undoubtedly will be an amazing political career.
Danny Peary: Norah, was your documentary originally going to be about Ilhan or about Ilhan, Phyllis Kahn, and Mohmud Noor as the three campaigned for the seat in the Minnesota’s State Legislature?
Norah Shapiro: It was always about Ilhan. Part of the story, of course, was the three-way race. It was unclear to me who was going to win, but Ilhan struck me immediately as being remarkable. Ilhan taking on the establishment and a 43-three incumbent and challenging all kinds of notions about who gets to be in office and who gets to represent whom in this country was fascinating to me.
I knew in my gut that whether Ilhan prevailed or not in that particular election that she had an amazing political career ahead of her. I knew that her quest to win that seat gave me the opportunity to document some really important dynamics in American politics and culture.
DP: Ilhan, did you worry that as the subject of Norah’s film that if you lost the election you’d ruin it?
Ilhan Omar (laughing): When we initially sat down to discuss the movie, we talked about all of that. It was interesting that Norah used as an example Street Fight [in which Marshall Curry documented Cory Booker’s attempt to unseat four-term Newark mayor Sharpe James] because we see Cory lose in that documentary, although he’d win future elections.
I told her, “That’s not a good example! You’re going to jinx my election, Norah!” I think there was always an understanding that this movie really wasn’t about the outcome but the journey. We were setting out to reshape the notion of who had access to politics, of who is considered ready to be a representative of a particular community. And, also, what it actually takes for someone to mount a campaign that is worthy of unseating the longest-serving incumbent—because when we set out to do that, there was no road map, no story to read. Win or lose, there was a very exciting and inspiring story to be told.
DP: Was it exciting for you that no one else had done what you wanted to do? Or was it daunting?
IO: It was daunting. But it was also exciting and aspirational to take on the task as someone who had never before run for office. I had worked on Mohmud Noor’s campaign that failed against Phyllis Kahn two years prior. From that, I realized how difficult this was going to be. I knew how my involvement in his campaign was going to play in our community of new Americans and how I was now going to be set up as the villain in the conversation because some people believed my “brother” in essence was entitled to have the seat because he ran for it before and he is man.
DP: How did you come to trust Norah to film your campaign?
IO: It was a process. Norah is a long-time friend of my older sister and she was referred to me through that relationship. For me, there was a strong connection when we had our initial conversation because we had a mutual understanding of the kind of community that we wanted to build around the idea of social justice. We saw the world through the same lens and had the same moral compass as our guide.
DP: Did you give Norah total from the beginning or did it increase as the campaign went on?
IO: From the beginning, Norah said she couldn’t do the film unless she had full access. So we talked about what that would look like. I aired my concerns about having this person be part of the campaign. She said, “I’m willing to work to gain your trust.” And she eventually gained my trust.
DP: Norah, did Ilhan alert you to certain events? Would she call you up? Or would you call her and ask is she was doing any events you might want to cover?
NS: All of the above. Part of my job was anticipating what I’d need to capture. When you do vérité film work, you basically embed yourself. I had to become an expert on many, many levels. I had to anticipate, I had to build lots and lots of relationships. My relationship with Ilhan was first and foremost, but I wanted to capture her relationship with her family so I had to build relationships with her husband and children, as well as her team, my team, and people who make things happen within the political world. I had to constantly ask many people what was happening, and anticipate and pay attention to things going on around me.
IO: And we gave her access to our calendar.
NS: Which was huge. Ilhan did share what she was going to do.
DP: So on Election Day, when Ilhan was walking the streets until the last second asking passersby for votes, you were informed she would do that?
NS: Yes, of course, that was planned. That was a year and a half into our relationship and Ilhan understood I had to be there for that. So we figured out the logistics. I had to decide where the cameras would be and not bother her about that.
DP: That the students were on break and wouldn’t be around to vote for Ilhan couldn’t have been a surprise to you.
NS: That’s not right. The students were on break only for the primary election. The hope originally was that Ilhan was going to get the endorsement at the convention.
IO: We worked at getting the endorsement because that is the easiest undertaking. So we put in all our efforts. We raised a ton of money, we spent a ton of money, we organized to do that. We couldn’t imagine that we would be short by nine votes and not get the endorsement. In all the years I organized for caucuses and conventions that had never happened to anyone. Always if it was that close, a candidate would eventually walk away with the endorsement. What plays out in the movie is my shock that people were willing to hold out for Mohmud Noor, so I was short with the votes.
Afterward, it was about deciding what to do next because it was a bigger challenge to run in a primary in a district where 55% of the population is under the age of 24. So most of the people who could be mobilized and who could be newcomers to the political process were either not present or couldn’t have cared less that there was an election happening while they were on summer break. The long-time, permanent residents had participated in primaries before and were very much aware that elections were happening, so they could easily be mobilized.
Our challenge was how to construct a campaign that engaged a young community that was not going to be interested in voting and influenced enough of the older community to join our campaign, including peeling away enough Muslims from the familiar male candidate, Mohmud Noor. So we wanted then to have conversation with a united district rather than going the traditional route and mobilizing only one base.
DP: You were also courting the Asian vote.
IO: Yes, I considered the long-time residents and Asians have been in the district as long as it has existed. Koreans came after the Korean War.
DP: Norah, in the film, all three candidates appear on a local radio show to discuss the issues. And Ilhan, according to how that scene is edited, definitely outperforms her competitors. This comes across as the key moment that Ilhan proved herself to be the best candidate.
NS: That’s interesting. Ilhan told me about the show the day before. I couldn’t find another person to go to the station with a camera but something told me that it had to be covered, so I shot that myself.
IO: It was after the caucus, so that’s why you didn’t have a cameraman available.
NS: Yeah, and interestingly it turned out to be one of the only times I had all three candidates in the room together. The energy and the conflict all played out. The dynamics of all three was evident and, yeah, she more than held her own and brought her fire to air. It was really a foreshadowing of what was going to play out later. So we worked really hard to edit that footage to turn it into a cohesive scene at that point in the movie to capture what happened, including some of the unspoken dynamics that I think came out.
DP: In that footage, I think Phyllis Kahn was shocked that Ilhan stood up to her and made it clear that Kahn had a disconnect with students and Ilhan understood their issues. Which leads me to a simple yet profound thing Ilhan said in the film.
NS: I know what you’re going to say! Let’s see if I’m right!
DP: She states: you can be a liberal but not be a progressive.
NS: Yep, I knew that’s what you were going to say.
DP: Ilhan, you were making the case that Phyllis Kahn was a liberal but not progressive. Did you know you were saying something important, that really makes all of us think?
IO: No, but after Norah filmed me saying that, she kept telling me I had said something that she thought was important but I never got to see the footage.
NS: I knew it was important. It’s an amazing line.
IO: To me, being liberal is being open to ideas and being progressive is acting on them. Representative Kahn has always been liberal but our district is very progressive in that we consider ourselves organizers and mobilizers for action. That’s not what we were getting from her and that’s what we needed.
DP: Ilhan, you have seen the footage of your learning of your victory and collapsing in relief. Do you remember that happening?
IO: I don’t remember doing that. I don’t think I remember anything from that day. I’ve watched the film and in seeing footage of the last two weeks leading up to the election, I didn’t realize how small I looked. Because I forgot to eat and I forgot to sleep because I was so consumed with actively participating in the planning and the execution of the campaign.
My campaign staff would tell me, “Can you just show up and have us tell you what to do?” But as someone who had worked on campaigns I wanted to help plan the details. So I thought about it and dreamed about it and couldn’t stop myself from constantly thinking about what was coming next and needed to get done. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was or how hungry I might have been. I didn’t think I was tired. But when it was over my body in both excitement and sheer exhaustion collapsed.
NS: I was filming when it happened, with one of two cameras. It was an extraordinary moment for many, many reasons. Having spent countless hours making this film, I can say that you don’t see that side of Ilhan. I was crying behind the camera as the meaning of her victory sunk in. There’s a photograph that someone took moments after that of her rushing into my arms, while I was holding the camera and crying. And that moment between Ilhan and David [Gilbert Pederson, her brilliant campaign chair)—I can’t watch that to this day without tearing up, and you can imagine how many times I’ve seen it.
DP: Was there an agreement between you—maybe not agreement but an understanding—that the film would end right then, after the election?
NS (while Ilhan laughs): We didn’t have a formal agreement, but she may have hoped it was over. I was exhausted too, let me tell you, after what it took to be everywhere day in and day out to capture everything—including footage that didn’t make it into the final print. But we woke up the morning after the election and it became clear that we had to keep going in some capacity as new events transpired. So we did.
IO (laughing): There was a vision that Norah had that none of us could understand. We would joke that in order for me to escape her I would have to fake my death—and then she’d still want to film the funeral. Because she was still filming and we didn’t think anything else was happening.
NS: But there was, as you now see in the documentary.
IO: Yes, there was the arc.
DP: Ilhan, are you amazed at the trajectory of your life, being where you are now after being born in Somalia and living in a refugee camp? Do people keep reminding you of that?
IO (slowly): I don’t think people can fully comprehend how massive this trajectory has been for me, so I remind myself. I don’t think there is a day that passes when I don’t think about that. My colleagues often joke, “You seem too humble for all the stuff that’s happening.” But it’s hard to consume it because it feels like it may be happening to someone else, not the person who experienced all that. I am surprisingly taken back to it and I feel blessed and honored and grateful to have had the platforms I’ve used to influence in a way I could never have imagined.
DP: Another thing you say in the film is “The world of tomorrow is going to be for many of us problematic.” Is what you say is an impetus for you?
IO: It’s a compass, it’s a driving tool, it’s the thing that continues to fuel me because there’s more work that needs to be done. And that work is challenging but is more exciting every single day.
DP: Do you look five or six years into the future?
IO: No, because all my life, everything has been a surprise. I look back to my childhood in Somalia and the extreme comforts that I had and how I could not imagine losing any of that. And I think about my time in a refugee camp and how I could not imagine escaping that. And I think about my painful beginnings in this country and how I could not imagine ever being accepted. And I think about growing up without a mother and how I could not imagine how motherhood could be—and now I have three children. Everything in my life—all the blessings I’ve had and all the sadness and sorrows—has not been what I could imagine or think about overcoming. So I think back to what my grandfather used to always say: “Everything is temporary, so enjoy the moment and hope that tomorrow is even brighter.”
DP: Not only accepted, but also elected.
IO (laughing): That’s a good quote, I can use that.
DP: Finally, Norah, tell me what it means to you personally and as a politically-progressive filmmaker to have Ilhan as the subject of your movie.
NS: Blessed, grateful, all the same words that Ilhan just used. I could never have imagined. It has been a privilege and an honor and honestly considering what happened on the national level in 2016, making and working on this film was and is the antidote, and is my contribution to the resistance. Everybody has to see this movie about her. It feels very sacred to me.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies,Jackie Robinson in Quotes, and his newest publication with Hana Ali, Ali on Ali: Why He Said What He Said When He Said It, about the origins of her father’s most famous quotes (Workman Publishing).