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Rash Report: A split vote on two new documentaries about democracy

September 22, 2018

Two documentaries that debuted Friday in the Twin Cities, Fahrenheit 11/9 and Time for Ilhan, say a lot about the state of our democracy.

The 11/9 in Michael Moores new film refers to Nov. 9, the day (or dawn, for bleary-eyed election watchers) in 2016 when it was confirmed that Donald Trump had been elected president. The numbers may have flipped from Fahrenheit 9/11, Moores scorched-earth take on former President George W. Bush, but the film feels familiar, right down to Moore interspersing himself in the story.

That bit works when Moore criticizes his own role in Trumps trajectory, like in chummy joint TV appearances with the future president. But it doesnt work when he reverts to his signature stunts, like watering the lawn at the Michigan governors mansion with toxic water from Flint.

The tragedy of Flint is too grave for such polemics, and anyway the story is better told by those who lived it and saw loved ones die from a political and moral scandal that should shock the national conscience. These Flintites are the real stars of Fahrenheit 11/9, along with other intrepid individuals fighting back against a broken system such as striking teachers in West Virginia and Parkland, Fla., students calling out NRA-funded political complicity in school shootings. When these everyday heroes are on screen, Fahrenheit 11/9 sears, and even occasionally soars.

Moores cinema verit also speaks truth to power by calling out the political-media complex for its failures and by criticizing not just Republicans but the Democratic establishment. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton are castigated for cozying up to corporate interests. And Moore is particularly tough on former President Barack Obama, who deeply disappoints Flint residents by drinking a glass of its tap water in a cheap stunt that suggests the crisis is over when in fact the generations-long impact of its toxic water has just begun.

The ending of Moores film turns back toward Trump but is marred by his use of Nazi imagery. Beyond being factually inaccurate, its morally wrong to equate anyone or any movement with the Third Reich, which was singular in its evil. Moore should have skipped the histrionics and given more time to the historians who give context on how democracies can slide into despotism.

Moviegoers may leave Fahrenheit 11/9 understandably anxious about Americas democracy. If so, they should take in a double feature and catch Time for Ilhan, a new documentary about Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar, the refugee-turned-politician whose workplace will likely move from St. Paul to Washington if, as expected, shes elected to Congress on Nov. 6.

Time for Ilhan, which is having a five-screening run at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, has received raves at film festivals nationwide. But most Minnesotans now know the back story. Born in Somalia, Omar fled her war-torn homeland when she was 8 years old for a Kenyan refugee camp, where she lived for four years. Eventually settling in Minneapolis, she became a student, a mother of three, a senior policy aide for a City Council member, a community organizer and, as the documentary compellingly chronicles, an upstart politician who beat another trailblazer, former Rep. Phyllis Kahn, for a seat in the state Legislature.

Omars rapid rise to the DFL-endorsed candidate for Congress happened after the documentary wrapped, but in many ways the focus on her tight race in the tight-knit Minneapolis legislative district makes the movie more compelling. Especially because the star of this show isnt just Omar, but the kind of grass-roots democracy Moore calls for in Fahrenheit 11/9.

In a sense, Time for Ilhan is an inversion of both Fahrenheit films. Its an optimistic look at American democracy, however disorderly (and as many will remember, the DFL primary between Omar, Kahn and another Somali-American candidate, Mohamud Noor, was often chaotic).

Minneapolis-based filmmaker Norah Shapiro doesnt flinch from the tension within the progressive community or within the Somali-American community, nor does she ignore marital-status controversy that followed Omars inspirational victory.

But her lens is larger and encompasses the theme that also motivates Moore democracy.

The film certainly is about Ilhans journey in her initial campaign, said Shapiro. But the film is really much bigger, she added, referring to her hope that it inspires people in similar circumstances as the now-famous Omar.

People who have been less likely to be represented in elected office, that they might think, Well, if she could do it, maybe I can too, maybe I should too,  Shapiro said.

Fahrenheit 11/9 is a damning, and ultimately depressing, look at Americas political system. Time for Ilhan, conversely, is decidedly optimistic. And while real life is more nuanced than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the story of Ms. Omar going to St. Paul gives reason for everyone even for those opposed to her ideology to believe and participate in the system.

This is a story about the American dream; this is a story of whats possible in America, Shapiro said.

You might have some people who are far to the right of Ilhan on certain issues, but I think any American should appreciate the story of somebody who, from a very young age, came to this country as a refugee and fell in love with the promise of this country, fell in love with the promise of American democracy, and then proceeded to put in extraordinary blood, sweat and tears. Honestly, theres tremendous patriotism in this story, and I think that is a story that transcends political affiliation.

And if nothing else, Shapiro said, I hope it makes people feel the opposite of cynical of whats possible in the tools we have in our democracy, however messy and, in some cases, broken it might be. I still think theres tremendous promise.

Indeed, headlines, and Fahrenheit 11/9, will attest to the test of resiliency the nations governing system is undergoing.

But theres nothing about Americas democracy that cant be fixed with, well, democracy.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.

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