NEW YORK — By the time I’m done typing this sentence there’s a good chance Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar will have made some more news.
Though at the far left of the political spectrum, she’s at the center of everything. That’s her on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine. There she is on the receiving end of some heinous Islamophobic rhetoric thanks to a Republican Party-run booth at the West Virginia statehouse. And there she is gracelessly belching out more crypto (and maybe not-so-crypto-) anti-Semitic comments on Twitter.
You know what they say about showbiz (and politics?): there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Omar was an unknown just a few short years ago, but Minneapolis-based documentary filmmaker Norah Shapiro realized she’d “found gold” — as she puts it in a director’s statement — when she met the organizer/public speaker in December 2015.
Back then, the Somali-born naturalized citizen was still planning a run for the Minnesota State House of Representatives’ 60B district, home to a university campus, one of the highest concentrations of student debt and the “Little Mogadishu” neighborhood with large unemployment numbers and a median annual salary for immigrants at $28,000 a year.
But Omar wasn’t just planning to win an empty seat in a local election, she was planning to win one from Phyllis Kahn, a local feminist icon who’d held the position for 44 years.
Shapiro’s film, “Time of Ilhan,” is mostly an in-the-trenches campaign documentary as the novice knocks on doors and slowly chips away at Kahn’s seemingly impenetrable fortress.
We see Omar at home (a caring mother), on the move (focused, rarely flustered or frustrated), and in meetings (always sharp when speaking, attentive to her staff when they offer suggestions). Omar’s got her talking points – help the poor, represent “us” (the immigrant community) in a way Rep. Kahn either can’t or won’t and, um … well, I guess that’s it.
The movie is a little light on policy but, to be fair, that can make for boring cinema. Do you want to watch a movie about zoning regulations in Minneapolis? Yeah, probably not.
What the movie also doesn’t do is discuss the elephant in the room, especially considering this film is coming out (in select cities and on VOD) in March 2019. There’s nothing in here about Omar’s long-term aggressive attitudes toward Israel and the Jews. And that is, after all, the tune that’s keeping her at the top of the charts right now.
Of course, Rep. Omar’s more famous remarks occurred well after this film’s window. (Its final scenes are of her win for the state House, counterbalanced with Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton.) But there still was her doozy on Twitter from 2012 (“Israel has hypnotized the world, may Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel”) — and the fact that her opponent Phyllis Kahn is a Jewish woman.
There’s a very brief mention in one of Omar’s staff meetings, where someone on her campaign says that, when giving quotes or phone banking, they need to be mindful of not seeming anti-Semitic when dissing Kahn. There’s a reaction shot that includes Omar, who seems to “get it,” but this comes in an atmosphere that accepts as a given that Omar will be horribly mistreated as a candidate because she is a Muslim.
That isn’t an unfounded claim: As soon as Omar defeats Kahn in the primary (which effectively gives her the win) a weird story gurgles up out of nowhere about her previous marriages and an incestuous relationship with her brother. The story is quickly debunked, but in the immediate aftermath Shapiro’s crew had no access to the Omar camp.
We get some insight into her earlier years, however. She was born in Mogadishu and her mother died when she was only two. The Somali civil war brought horror and havoc and the family was able to escape to a refugee camp in Kenya when she was eight. She lived there for four years and, after watching Pollyanna-ish videos about the United States, emigrated at the age of 12.
Wikipedia shows different ages, but the point is that she spent the bulk of her adolescence in the United States and, after the 9/11 attacks, felt compelled to be more forthcoming in her Muslim faith and begin wearing a hijab. One of the opening scenes of “Time for Ilhan” is her boasting a pin that reads “I wear a hijab. I’m a feminist. Deal with it.” It gets a celebratory response.
Here’s the least controversial thing anyone will say about Rep. Ilhan Omar: she has a marvelous sense of style. Her hijab collection is fantastic and fashion-forward and she rarely is seen wearing the same one twice. She looks terrific.
She’s also outstanding when working with young voters. One of her women-of-color volunteers is seen gushing “this is a system I don’t trust and something I don’t want to be a part of” and yet she’s out there hustling to earn her candidate votes. Not every candidate can mobilize people like that.
Watching this movie in 2019, of course, there are some issues. For starters, there’s the punchline that as soon as Omar finally knocked Phyllis Kahn out of her seat she immediately jumped into the race for the bigger position in the United States House of Representatives. So much for those granular victories about student debt, I guess. And then, of course, there’s Omar’s self-exposed positions on Jews.
In Prof. Deborah Lipstadt’s recently published book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” she offers a taxonomy of different kinds of bigotry. One of them is called “the Clueless Antisemite.” Rep. Ilhan Omar lived in war-torn Somalia, a refugee camp in Kenya and “Little Mogadishu” in the middle of Minnesota. The one Jew that ever came into that sphere was Phyllis Kahn, a symbol of power viewed from a position of powerlessness. This is not an excuse for her to continuously tweet asinine things like “It’s all about the Benjamins,” but it is at least some context.
None of this, unfortunately, is in Shapiro’s film. The filmmaker did, however, issue a statement. “As a progressive Jewish woman,” it reads, “I embrace the opportunity the recent events surrounding Ilhan have offered the film, to do what films do best: shed light on experiences different from our own, build empathy across difference, and inspire meaningful — and potentially transformative — discussions about hard topics, including antisemitism and islamophobia.”
This statement hit my inbox on February 19. Between then and now, Rep. Omar has made additional comments about Jewish-American “dual loyalty,” one of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes in the book.
Director Shaprio had planned to grant The Times of Israel an interview, but rescinded the day before our talk was scheduled. A call for a follow-up comment went unanswered at press time.
So what does that all mean about this movie? Is it worth watching?
If you are looking for some true, insightful investigative reporting on Ilhan Omar, then no, absolutely not. If you are interested in the cinematic sub-genre of fly-on-the-wall political campaigns, then yes, you should, because much (not all!) of this movie steers away from propaganda and is just fascinating to watch. It may not be Frederick Wiseman, but it isn’t boring.
The best scene is of Omar, perhaps unaware the camera is on her (or, if I may be cynical, pretending to be unaware) while confronting a fellow Somali-American named Mohmud Noor who is also running against Phyllis Kahn. He has no chance of winning, but will not throw his support behind her. (Macho b.s. affecting his brain, most likely.)
Omar, a petite figure, hovers over Noor while he is seated. He refuses to meet her eye. She has him up against the ropes, needling him about the good of the community one moment, then socking him in the jaw with thinly veiled threats the next. “Help me now,” she offers, while she’s on the way up. Because she’s definitely going up and once she’s there, she’ll remember who was kind and who was an obstruction.
One watches this film and it isn’t surprising that she is a success. It’s just disappointing that one needs to turn to sources outside of the film to get a full understanding of her layered complexity.