Sometimes Decency and Grit Win
A review of the documentary film “Time for Ilhan”.
Posted Apr 17, 2018
This film, premiering at the 2018 TriBeCa Film Festival, opens in the living room of a modest, two-decker suburban home as a mother braids her young daughter’s hair. But this is no ordinary woman: She is about to run for the Minnesota state legislature—a woman of color, an immigrant, a Somali and a Muslim. She will run against two other candidates, the incumbent of 43 years, a Jewish woman, as well as a fellow Somali, who happens to be a man. Speak about having the deck stacked against you.
Ilhan Oman stands a (slim) chance because in her district live seventy thousand Somalis as well as the students and faculty of the University of Minnesota. But never before has a Somali (and woman and Muslim) won a statewide or national election in the USA. Yet she has the spirit of a fighter, a belief in the power of community and humanity, brains, warmth and wisdom, and a determination to serve. She reminds me of Barack Obama when he came onto the national stage. Ilhan seems like him, bringing a message of hope and having been a community organizer. She also has a family—a father, husband and three children (her mother died when she was two), who stand by her, literally and figuratively. Her husband takes a leave from his work to enable her to be constantly on the campaign trail.
Ilhan, as all her posters and media refer to her, arrived in the United States, in New York City at the age of 12, speaking no English. Her father and siblings had fled the civil war in Somalia and had lived for four years in a refugee camp in Kenya. They found their way from the East Coast to the Twin Cities and so began her route to an education, citizenship and the cause of making life better for the people of Minnesota. A rags-to-riches (in values and meaning) story. Yet there is nothing sentimental about this documentary, which takes us through the ordeal of her trek from caucuses, to the primary (where none of the three candidates was endorsed), and to election in her district.
Her campaign policy focus was a tableau that included fossil fuels, economic inequity and poverty, student debt, unemployment and the correctional system. She also signified the growing emergence of women running for political office as well as a future characterized by diversity in color, race and religion. Ilhan had to face and rise above the deep biases held against Muslims throughout our land, and the views in her own Somali, Muslim community that she was too young and a woman. She faced questions from voters like “…did you father and husband give you permission to run?”
Ilhan’s legislative journey reminded me of what Gandhi famously said about taking on the establishment: “First they ignore you, then they shame you, then they fight you, then you win.” Though for Ilhan the fight, which she was winning, preceded the shaming, in which she was falsely alleged of immigration fraud in an effort to destroy her politically. The US Attorney in Minnesota determined there was nothing illegal. But she had to both suffer and recover from the hate campaign that had been waged against her. That’s resilience, grit and a good measure of grace.
Finally, Ilhan wins the statewide election against all the odds. At the same moment, another woman, Hillary Clinton, loses. Ilhan is humbled by her victory and cries, not only for the privilege she has been given but to a sense of what lies ahead in our nation.
Directed and produced by Norah Shapiro, a former public defender, the film has the pace and suspense of a Hitchcock thriller. Even if you know the outcome, you will sit on the edge of your seat. Shapiro has the eye of a fine photographer, the timing of a bullfighter, and the capacity to take us into intimate personal and campaign moments without feeling intrusive or voyeuristic.
Bravo for this film, for Ilhan Oman, her family, her community, and for Ms. Shapiro. At a time when our country seems to have lost its moral compass, we need ample doses of humanity and hope, and a moral tale that shows us that sometimes the good guys win.
Dr. Lloyd Sederer is a psychiatrist and public health doctor. The opinions offered here are entirely his own.