Time for Ilhan (2019)
Directed by Norah Shapiro
While “Knock Down the House”—Rachel Lears’s documentary following the campaigns of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and three other progressive Democrats—has been wowing critics at film festivals like Sundance, True/False, and SXSW, another new campaign documentary is quietly showing at smaller festivals (after premiering at Tribeca) and releasing on DVD and VOD. This one follows AOC’s congressional classmate, Ilhan Omar, but focuses on her 2016 campaign to represent a slice of Minneapolis in the Minnesota state house. Her battle to defeat a 45-year incumbent in the Democratic primary had similarities to Corey Booker’s run for Mayor of Newark, documented in one of the best campaign docs this century (and arguably the best), “Street Fight,” but the way Omar’s story was told will likely not get the Oscar nomination that “Street Fight” received.
‘Time for Ilhan” shows the struggles a young, immigrant, Muslim woman faces when she seeks public office in this country. It’s a struggle that hasn’t gotten much easier in the two-and-a-half years since this campaign, as evidenced by a sign displayed in the West Virginia statehouse for “GOP Day” recently, which used 9/11 imagery to suggest that Muslims should not hold office in America. Or the comments by Fox News host Jeanine Pirro just the other day, who suggested that Omar must be opposed to the constitution because of her religion. Nothing quite so blatantly Islamophobic is shown in “Time for Ilhan,” but the reality that the things that make up Omar’s identity are fighting against her is apparent. But while the story remains painfully relevant, the documentary does, at times, feel outdated. It ends with Donald Trump’s election as President, which now feels like it happened at least a decade ago (though, of course, it’s only been—God help us—just over two years). Since then, Omar’s public profile and name recognition has skyrocketed, and her election to Congress last November dwarves her earlier, smaller-scale, campaign. Yes, it’s true that her 2016 campaign was notable in more ways than one. It certainly propelled her to a place where an election to Congress was even possible. But still, you can’t help feeling like this movie would have been better had it come out at least a year ago.
Campaign documentaries are a wonderful subgenre of documentary filmmaking, one that I enjoy greatly. From the aforementioned “Street Fight” to “The War Room” and “Weiner,” any film that humanizes politicians has the opportunity to show the public who their representatives truly are. “Time for Ilhan” is important for that reason, as it shows a normal family woman living in a normal house in a normal Midwest state feeling normal anxieties about her incumbent representative—except unlike most normal Americans, this woman did something about it. You can disagree with her politics, but you’d have to have a cold heart not to respect a person for seeing a problem and deciding to do something about it. “Time for Ilhan” takes the woman you see on CSPAN and shows how she got there.
You can rent “Time for Ilhan” on Amazon.