It was guided intuition that led Norah Shapiro to create a documentary about U.S. Representative-elect Ilhan Omar’s underdog rise in Minnesota politics. Well before Omar defeated 44-year incumbent Phyllis Kahn, and Somali male candidate Mohamud Noor for state representative in 2016, Shapiro and her documentary team were following the campaign.
The result, “Time for Ilhan,” was the first Minnesota-made documentary selected for the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where it debuted in Spring 2018. The film is getting play at festivals in Canada, Scotland, and around the U.S. It will be screened to groups ranging from immigration service providers at a D.C. conference to Muslim student organizations.
Her vision for the movie, Shapiro says, was for the film to serve as a ‘how-to’ for grassroots candidates, women of color, young people, and “anyone who has felt that the political system is impenetrable and hopeless.” Shapiro intended the documentary to be about “how they can show up and make change.”
Shapiro recognized Omar as a story in the making, which enabled her to get early, intimate access to Omar’s young family, caucus frustrations, unglamorous highs and lows of the behind-the-scenes campaigning, the euphoria of grassroots efforts that led to the DFL primary win, and raw fears about the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
Shapiro had been looking for a story set in Minnesota’s Somali immigrant community. It was Omar’s sister who recommended she meet Ilhan.
“Her authenticity. Her accessibility. You just know in her presence that there is something special emanating there,” says Shapiro. “Challenging the incumbent,a one-time trailblazer herself, and a Somali man, as a hijab-wearing woman at a time when Islamophobia was percolating. It was set up to be an interesting ride.”
From Lawyer to Movie Maker
Shapiro’s own trajectory from lawyer to documentarian has also been an interesting ride. As a child in the 1960s and 70s, she was taken to civil rights marches by her mother, a social worker with the Wilder Foundation. In high school at St. Paul Academy, she was interested in the arts.
“If I hadn’t been so afraid of the GRE” — the standardized test required for graduate school — with its inclusion of quantitative analysis, Shapiro might not have ended up in law school. After receiving her law degree, she rejected an offer to pay off college debt by working at a traditional firm. Her mission was to use her legal background to “fight systems of oppression and systemic injustices.”
She became a lawyer specifically for impoverished clients in the criminal justice system. “Trying cases, going before a judge,” Shapiro says, “is all about telling stories. It’s about asking questions of clients in order to tell their story,” and show a judge or jury why the prosecutor’s story is not as simple and obvious as they might think. “I never got tired of that.”
Shapiro did her job as public defender in Hennepin County for 12 years. “It was a high-stress job. You are in constant crisis.”
As the mother of young children, being pulled in different directions, she was ready for a change. She took a leave of absence for a year while her husband had a fellowship in Oregon. After returning to Minnesota, it was a short step to quit law, without knowing what might come next.
“The universe smiled on me,” she says. A week after quitting her job, she learned of a documentary film-making boot camp led by local Melody Gilbert — a “force of nature,” Shapiro says, who believes in “learning by doing.”
Shapiro was on her way, learning how to use her ability to ask questions in order to tell a story.
Exploration of Identity
In 2014, Shapiro’s Flying Pieces Productions released the one-hour film “Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.” It featured the story of local teenager Tenzin Khecheo, who was born a Tibetan exile in India, and returns there from Minnesota for the oddity of a “Miss Tibet” contest.
Shapiro captured the quandary of a young woman’s doubt about whether she is “Tibetan enough” to represent a homeland where none of the contestants have been allowed to live. Shapiro is a Jewish woman, who was raised by the children of immigrants. She realized in hindsight that her own overlapping interest in identifying, and not, with ancient ethnic and religious heritage was partly what drew her to tell the Miss Tibet story.
In both “Miss Tibet” and “Time for Ilhan,” Shapiro lifts up the ways women forge their own revolutionary identity in modernity while embracing traditional roots.
She is currently producing a film about the disappearance of Jacob Wetterling, his family, and how they coped with unthinkable loss — and its impact on modern parenting.
There is little money in documentary work, which is challenging to make sustainable, she says. While working with many hours of footage, or seeking funding, Shapiro has vowed “never to do it again.” She also recognizes there is something in every project that “pushes me forward to not let go, in spite of the reasons against it.”
Host a screening of the film “Time for Ilhan.” Community screenings will be available by request starting in early 2019. It also will be available on Fuse TV, Amazon Prime streaming, and other on-demand platforms.
Norah Shapiro is launching a distribution and donation campaign for the film, to reach students, women, and new Americans in underrepresented communities.