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It’s Time For Ilhan: Director Norah Shapiro Previews Her Powerful New Documentary [Exclusive]

Political newcomer Ilhan Omar is the first person of Somali descent to be elected to a legislative office anywhere in the United States. Battling a 43 year incumbent and male challenger, also from the Somali-American community, Ilhan sets herself apart by demonstrating her enthusiasm and willingness to listen and learn from people who will be her constituents. It’s not enough to be a liberal in our current environment, Ilhan believes you should also be progressive and act on pressing local issues. Time for Ilhan follows her journey starting in October 2015 when she declares her candidacy, through the struggle and sometimes turmoil of the campaign and ending when she’s sworn in. But don’t think I’ve just given away the entire plot of the film, because that only just scratches the surface.

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Ilhan’s incredible journey is documented by filmmaker Norah Shapiro in a fresh take on the old story of the American Dream. You may not know that Shapiro went from a career in law to a career in documentary filmmaking, but it’s not like she knew that was her path — at first. She signed up for a documentary filmmaking bootcamp “on a whim and had instant chemistry with this woman who was teaching the class.” Shapiro knew she was “very passionate about social justice and storytelling” and “needed a shift” after she left the public defender’s office. She’s always had “an attraction to people and stories of complexity and capturing, processing and reaching people in different ways.” So with a little bit of guidance, she jumped right in.

I ask Shapiro how she found Ilhan and when she knew she wanted to make a film about her. She tells me, “the Twin Cities has a really interesting situation that, maybe, people in other parts of the country aren’t aware of.” They have “many significant immigrant communities [and] are a hub and known for being a very welcoming place for refugee populations.”

Shapiro “had intersected with the Somali community a little bit in my very first film and had long been interested in and attracted for a lot of reasons.” After a friend of hers shot an idea down, a resulting meeting introduced her to Ilhan, who she later realized she’d been Facebook friends with for years. “I, of course, did my homework before I met her,” she continues, “and I knew that she was running for office in this David versus Goliath campaign battle and that intrigued me. I had always loved Marshall Curry’s Street Fight about the very beginning of Cory Booker’s political life. It’s one of my favorite documentaries of all time,” and Shapiro thought this story might be just as powerful. Not only is Ilhan “a woman in the Somali community, but she’s Muslim and she’s black and an immigrant, a one-time refugee and up against the powers inside the liberal end of the party. It was fascinating to me.”

I remember hearing about Ilhan back when she won her race in November 2016 because it was all over social media. And since Trump was elected, I’ve personally become much more politically active and engaged. We talked a little about how the democratic party and politics seems to be changing so quickly. “Certainly, I didn’t know the exact outcome of the race,” Shapiro states. “But who knew we would be where we are today in such a rapid period of time?”

Ilhan’s story really seems to resonate right now since some progressives are winning their primaries and getting elected. “Ilhan certainly has a degree of notoriety,” Shapiro continues, “and there are certain people who know who she is outside of this area. That’s gonna increase exponentially and for people to be able to see how she got there,” excites her.

One thing I really appreciated being exposed to in this documentary is Ilhan’s home life and her life in Minneapolis. When I asked Shapiro how important it was to represent that in the film, she tells me just how important it was to see Ilhan in her element and talking about “all the various identities that she wears, if you will, or that she occupies.”

Not only is it important that she’s Somali-American and running for office, but “it was very important because bringing that part of her personhood to office has everything to do with the diversity that is needed,” Shapiro continues. It’s an important part of Ilhan, but not the only part and “a part that has not been represented in elected office very much in this country. That’s also why that was such an important theme and element to” the film. Shapiro further explains, “And it’s why there’s this larger theme that goes beyond Ilhan. It’s about why we need diversity of all kinds in the people who are representing us.”

Not only do we get to spend time with the people working on Ilhan’s campaign, but we get great access to the incumbent Phyllis Kahn and the other challenger Mohamud Noor. Shapiro acknowledges that she “didn’t have the capacity to be sending out teams covering everybody equally nor was that my intention,” since she had such a bare-bones team. Ultimately, Shapiro states “it was important to me to come full circle at the end and touch base with both of those people. This is the game of politics.” Shaprio continues, “these battles are hard-fought. Many people who run for office continue to stay in politics and I would say all 3 of those people are true public servants.”

Late in the film, horrible accusations about Ilhan come out in the press. It’s a tense and dramatic and interesting moment in the film. Shapiro explains, “it’s the one time where we ‘break the fourth wall.’ There was a lot of serious contemplation about how to handle it and about how to handle the storytelling.” But ultimately, Shapiro felt it was extremely important to “show the fullness of what happened,” and to be fair. She’s “not the nightly news, but I still think it would’ve been a huge oversight to not include that.”

And she wanted to show the audience that people like Ilhan are constantly confronted by Islamophobia. “The bigger her platform becomes, the more the trolls come out. It’s really ghastly,” Shapiro explains, “but she employs the Michelle Obama approach: when they go low, we go high or higher.”

When they had to stop rolling, Shapiro acknowledges that “it was stressful. It was emotional. It was worrisome,” especially when you’re following dramatic events in real time. But it was also exhilarating and exciting and challenging. She continues, “we just respected the space that was requested and was needed, hung in there and were greatly relieved when the wheels were back on the bus.”

And ultimately, this is an uplifting and important story. I personally hope more women are motivated to run for office in America and help us be a more representative democracy. And to that end, Shapiro hopes that in addition to enjoying the film “as a piece of entertainment,” audiences will also emerge optimistic and inspired, instead of cynical. “I really am hoping that this energizes people,” she explains. If people don’t want to run for office, maybe they’ll get “more involved on behalf of a candidate like Ilhan.” At a bare minimum, “if you’re registered to vote, go vote. If you’ve been feeling mad about politics, look at this and see that there are people out there that you can get behind who can change things.”

In an effort to ignite social change through storytelling, Time for Ilhan is part of the Fuse Docs, a series of documentaries spotlighting young, idealistic and diverse people who celebrate their cultural heritage and identity, confronting issues, and overcoming prejudice. Previous Fuse Docs include Peabody Award-winning Indivisible and Daytime Emmy Award-nominated Bean.

In a nod to the September 25th National Voter Registration Day. Fuse will also air a programming block of previously aired Fuse Docs focusing on topics such as immigration, policy, protest, poverty, privilege and more throughout the day. Or you can watch them online.

Time for Ilhan premieres Tuesday, September 25th at 8/9c on Fuse.

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