On February 21, MPLS MadWomen hosted a screening of the critically acclaimed film Time for Ilhan at the St. Anthony Main Theatre. On the snowy Thursday night, the audience filled the theater to near capacity eager to watch the film and to ask questions and listen as director, Norah Shapiro, spoke about her experience in making it.
For those who haven’t seen it (which we recommend you do 😉), the film follows Ilhan Omar’s 2016 Minnesota House of Representatives campaign, giving the viewer a behind-the-scenes view into the effort, passion and community that went into the campaign. The film was named an official selection of the 2018 Tribeca FIlm Festival, making it the first-ever Minnesota-made, feature-length documentary selected to appear at Tribeca.
It’s no wonder the film received such accolades. It captures intimate family moments between Ilhan and her family around topics like “why is mommy gone so much” and, of course, the husband/wife domestic expectations — to which I say, “bravo” to her husband Ahmed Hirsi and his unwavering support of his wife and her efforts. In addition to family life, the film follows Ilhan around her community. From the U of M campus to her church near Seven Corners, the cameras were there at almost every step of the way.
Another aspect of the film that I appreciated was how Shapiro captured Phyllis Kahn, the 44-year incumbent that Ilhan “dethroned.” Just as Ilhan is making history now, Phyllis was making history in the 1970s, helping pave the path that eventually led to the movements we are seeing today. I appreciated that, although she was the antagonist in the film, she was not construed as someone truly negative, just an opponent in a heated campaign race.
At the end of the film, I walked away reminded of how important grassroots efforts are behind causes like Ilhan’s. I was impressed, not only by Ilhan’s passion and tenaciousness, but also by the community she rallied and inspired. Prior to seeing the film, I, of course, knew of Ilhan, and even had the honor of hearing her speak at our Female Pioneers event last year. However, seeing this film gave me a new appreciation for her campaign and for others like it.
After the film, Norah took some time to answer a few questions from the crowd (and we may have snuck a few in before hand too). What she really wanted crowds to walk away with after viewing the film, was the understanding of the grassroots efforts that go into campaigns like this. If my experience is any indication, it looks as though she is succeeding! Here’s what else Norah had to say regarding her experience as a filmmaker:
Q. What inspired you to make the shift from public defender to filmmaker?
A. “I think it was a combination of a level of stress that was becoming cumulatively toxic, combined with a yearning to be working in a more creative milieu. There was a common thread in terms of wanting to tell stories that were complex, and mattered. I’m not sure it was an intentional ‘now I’m going to become a filmmaker’ at first, as much as being really really curious and attracted to the medium of documentary film.”
Q. What do you take from your career as a public defender into your filmmaking?
A. “A lot of things, when I look backward. An attraction to complexity, a drive to ask questions; the balance between hard, thorough preparation and being able to shoot from the hip; persistence and passion; the importance of instinct and intuition; not being afraid of being told no; not being afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and still figure out how to go forward; sadly – squeezing blood from a stone in terms of financial resources (certainly not being in it for the $)…”
Q. Can you tell us about your experience while making the film?
A. “It was a life changing experience,” said Shapiro. She explained on how watching the story unfold from behind a camera lens helped her be able to process the election. The film captures the public ups and downs Ilhan experienced while on the campaign trail, while also giving the viewer an intimate look at celebrations and challenges of family life while campaigning. “It was a burden, a privilege and an honor to go on a journey with someone like this.”
Q. What was your creative process?
A. “I did not storyboard this out,” Shapiro laughed. She went on to explain how she was “seized by the gut.” Although she had one vision when she started, it didn’t necessarily follow that path. She thought that all would be over by the time of the election, but reality had another path for her. Shapiro also praised her editor and explained that, through their partnership, she was able to pull out the pieces for the right story.
Q. What is your favorite moment of Time for Ilhan?
A. “Ah no fair making me pick one! Ok probably the moment when she confronts her male opponent head on and calls him out to his face, directly. That moment of verite is priceless. I also almost never fail to tear up during the moment when she realizes what has just happened in the war room after the Primary.”
Q. What is the biggest thing you learned while making this film?
A. “Wow, where to begin. I‘ve learned a tremendous amount about our political system, and a bit about the contemporary experience of many refugees and immigrants in America today. I’ve also learned an immeasurable amount about the industry side of the documentary film world. And, I’ve also taken an incredibly deep dive into the world of social impact using documentary films for social change.”
Q. Can we expect to see this on Netflix anytime soon?
A. The film will become available on iTunes, Google and Amazon (dates TBD) and she looks forward to it becoming readily available. One major take away she hopes people walk away with after watching the film is how important grassroots efforts are to movements like this. She explained that the film is about who gets to be at the table and as the film is seen by more and more people, she hopes it inspires people to show up and take their seat.
Q. When did you first realize all your hard work was going to pay off in the form of awards and critical acclaim? What was your reaction?
A. “Probably when we found out we had gotten into the Tribeca Film Festival. Which, in and of itself doesn’t guarantee anything, but it was such an incredible honor and high to have the first ever Minnesota-made feature documentary to premiere at this top-tier festival. And speaking of awards, it’s funny, when we screened at the Provincetown Film Festival soon after, I almost skipped the awards ceremony to go to a Drag Show because I didn’t think we had a chance – so I suppose winning the HBO Audience Award was another huge moment, I was so blown away I was virtually speechless.”
Q. Many of your films, including your upcoming Jacob Wetterling project, feature Minnesota stories. What about Minnesota/Minneapolis makes you want to tell these stories?
A. “Because this is where I live! I’m definitely open to stories that are set in other places, but there is something special about knowing a place and a community deeply, as well as finding worlds within a place you know that are still completely new to you. And having stories set where you live gives you the luxury, on a practical level, to follow something more expansively over time, and on the spur of the moment in a way that is either impossible or prohibitively expensive if it is set somewhere you have to travel to. And obviously, Minneapolis/Minnesota is just cool ;).”
Q. How is it being a female documentarian in a male dominated industry?
A. Fortunately for Shapiro, gender did not seem to impact her that much. She suggested that it was perhaps due to the fact that the industry isn’t a well-compensated one, but she was lucky enough to have no issues and has met amazing men and women during her time working as a documentarian that have helped her get to where she is now.
Q. What do you want to see for the future of female filmmakers?
A. “I want us to get HIRED. I want us to be FUNDED. The imbalance in Hollywood is well known. When I attended the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Mind the Gap Summit this past fall, I had the pleasure of meeting and seeing a talk by the brilliant Dr. Stacy Smith, associate professor of communications at USC Annenberg Institute and the brains behind the ‘Inclusion Rider’ that was first made widely public by Frances McDormand at the Oscars.”
Q. What would you have done differently if you knew what you know now when sarting this film?
A. She made a decision to not raise funds during the making of the film, but if she had, it would have been way easier to finish the project. ‘“The film industry is big business and people have to get paid!”
Shapiro also said she would have started the Impact campaign sooner. (Impact is an organization that works to support filmmakers as they create films that could drive impact and support causes.)
Q. Any words of wisdom to those making a similar move in changing careers?
A. “Don’t do it unless you can’t not do it!” Shapiro explained that, yes, anyone can do anything they put their mind to, but she also honest about the fact that it was incredibly hard. She was fortunate enough to have an amazing support network and was in a privileged enough position to be able to leave her job as a public defender. “All in all, passion drives you and then it’s your journey and it is what you make of it.”
Q. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to women interested in getting into filmmaking?
A. “Find someone who is working on a project that intrigues you and go offer to help and soak up everything you can. Read everything, find the people who are doing it in your community and connect with them. Get a camera and start using it! Take classes, help on other people’s projects, read, watch podcasts, attend industry conferences. We have lots of great resources and women who are making films in this community, for most filmmakers, making films is not a solitary endeavor, so reach out and dive in!”
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Written by Gabi Winkels
Image by Asia Cruz