A state lawmaker is questioning a Minnesota film rebate program that benefited a new documentary about state Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minneapolis, a Democratic candidate for Congress.
Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, said Thursday that she submitted a data request to the Minnesota Film and Television board seeking information about a 20 percent “Snowbate” incentive received by the producers of the documentary “Time For Ilhan.”
O’Neill said the rebate is expected to offset $11,852 of expenses associated with the film, which has played at multiple film festivals and is now playing at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She said she filed a state Data Practices Act request Thursday after recently seeing receipts associated with the rebate.
The film’s producers successfully applied for the rebate in March 2017 and were awarded the maximum reimbursement afforded to documentaries filmed in the state.
On Thursday, O’Neill questioned the state’s approval of funds for what she called a “promotional film” about a sitting state lawmaker who has a vote on the rebate program’s funding and who is also now running for a U.S. House seat.
“I don’t have issues with Rep. Omar — I don’t think she had much control over what happened,” O’Neill said in an interview Thursday. “I have issues with how the tax dollars are being used.”
Minneapolis filmmaker Norah Shapiro, who directed and produced the documentary, said Thursday that her production team was “fully transparent” with the film and TV board. “We stand by our film, which was completely and artistically independent of Rep. Omar, and we have nothing to hide,” she said.
The 82-minute documentary followed Omar’s 2016 rise to become the nation’s first Somali-American member of a state legislature.
Melodie Bahan, executive director of Minnesota Film and Television, wrote O’Neill on Thursday to offer to meet to discuss the Snowbate program, which was introduced in 1997 to incentivize film production in Minnesota. In an interview Thursday, Bahan said the board does not decide whether to grant rebates based on films’ subject matter and described the “Time For Ilhan” filmmakers as “absolutely transparent.”
“The rules of the program are fairly straightforward, and there has been nothing about this project that raised any issues,” Bahan said.
O’Neill criticized the film as “free political advertising at taxpayer expense” being played in Omar’s own district.
According to opensecrets.org, which tracks money in U.S. politics, Shapiro donated $250 to Omar in June 2018, about a week before Omar won the DFL endorsement for the seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who is now running for Minnesota attorney general.
“The film was 100 percent independent of her campaign,” Shapiro said. “I had 100 percent artistic license and creative control over the film.”