Time for Ilhan (Shapiro, 2018)

I first encountered the political career of Barack Obama not through a convention speech or town hall debate but through Bob Hercules’s Senator Obama Goes to Africa. I won’t say that I’m part of a generation that eschews television news completely, but having been brought up, at least educationally, imbibing Neal Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, I have noted that I am happier and healthier when I avoid consuming television pundits spouting spin.

Whether kicking the social media and television outrage habit is different from simply putting one’s head in the sand or averting one’s eyes at a catastrophic wreck depends, I suppose, on how one tries to remain informed once it’s shown that hacks and hackers are manipulators serving one party, drowing out the attempts of journalists to inform and educate.

Norah Shapiro is taken with Ilhan Omar. Let’s be clear about that. In her director’s statement she says that within “5 minutes” of meeting Omar, she knew “that she was remarkable.” Time for Ilhan, as the title suggests is a work of advocacy rather than observation. But Shapiro is not wrong that the degree of access she is granted, while perhaps not unprecedented, is documentary gold. It this age of blatant lying from podiums and pulpits, viewers like me are sometimes cynical that one can ever know the person behind the persona. Yet whether Omar is brushing her daughter’s hair, discussing her marriage and how it impacts the perception of her as a Muslim, or decoding the dog whistle language of the an at times ugly political landscape, she comes across as sincere, optimistic, and principled.

It is understandable that people want to contrast Omar’s election to that of Donald Trump since they are both part of the same political moment. But one way the film is effective is by portraying the politics or primaries and how they differ from that of national elections. Omar is running against a 43-year incumbent, Phyllis Kahn.  In my second favorite moment from the documentary, Omar draws a connection between Kahn’s smug dismissal of those who have endorsed her opponents and the feelings of disenfranchisement that “constituents” feel when elected officials speak and act as though they are only called to represent the parts of the population that voted for them. In my favorite moment, Omar works the room at an early endorsement vote, trying to convince the backers of a male Muslim (who had himself only narrowly lost to Kahn in a previous election) to support her candidacy.

Time for Ilhan will not change hard core Republicans into liberal, Minnesotar democrats. But it will introduce Democratic voters outside of Minnesota to a person they may only have heard of in passing. Positive first exposures are hard to get, particularly in a polarized and crowded political landscape. I don’t think Bob Hercules won Barack Obama the presidency, but it certainly didn’t hurt that campaign stories such as Revered Wright or the “God and guns” soundbite were filtered through my memory of a sincere, decent man talking directly to women in Africa. I remember saying “that doesn’t sound like the person in the documentary” when I heard attempts to smear the candidate.

I have a hunch I might be repeating those words sometime in the not too distant future.

Time for Ilhan debuts on VOD March 8, 2019.

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