Headshot of Precious Knowledge director Eren McGinnis.

Director Eren McGinnis on the Front Lines of Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Wars

May 16, 2012 by Brooke Shelby Biggs in Where Are They Now?

In January, the Tucson Unified School District ended its highly successful Mexican American Studies program after state officials threatened to withhold funding from schools that taught ethnic history and literature in a manner they contended encouraged race resentment and revolution against white people. As the political rhetoric was just heating up in Tucson in 2009, directors Ari Palos and Eren McGinnis trained their cameras on these classrooms, interviewed the players, and ended up documenting one of the last years of the program, as well as the beginnings of a complex civil rights struggle in Arizona. We interviewed McGinnis to get a state-of-the-issue update and some insight into the making of the film. Precious Knowledge premieres May 17 at 10 PM (check local listings).

What impact do you hope Precious Knowledge will have?
One goal is to help bring the extremely beneficial Mexican American Studies classes back to students in Tucson and anywhere ethnic studies curricula are needed. The second is to have our nationwide audience begin to think of creative solutions to re-engage students. The ‘push out’ rates for youth of color are very high and for Mexican American students, the drop out rate is above 50 percent.

What led you to make the film in the first place?
My son was a student at Tucson High School and I was more than upset the state government wanted to shut down ethnic studies classes. I was an overly involved PTA mom with a camera! Plus, I was motivated by a report that the corporations that build prisons look at data on the number of children of color in the 2nd grade to determine how many prison cells they will need when those 2nd graders become adults.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Precious Knowledge?
The myth of what ethnic studies actually is, and fears of multi-culturalism were huge challenges.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
My kids were the same age as the students in the film and therefore, I have a lot of experience with students in this age group. Plus, I am Irish Mexican, with my father being an immigrant from Mexico, and I am very comfortable in many different cultural surroundings.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
Tom Horne is a classically trained pianist and he played a composition by Sergei Rachmaninoff for us. I thought this footage really added to his character, however, our fantastic editor Jacob Bricca reined us in.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
Watching footage from the ceremonial run from Tucson to Phoenix is a beautiful experience. The students and teachers ran 113 miles in the middle of the summer in the Sonoran desert. It was very difficult to see how tired the students were after running this far and in such intense heat. It was a spiritual journey and the runners feel that each footstep brought healing and positive change to communities in need. My pride in and emotional tie to this footage is very strong because my son was also a runner. Plus, I knew we were filming important civil rights history and this footage will endure.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
I have been touring, with the students and teachers featured in the film, to college and university campuses for almost a year. The stars are very proud to travel all over the country with the film and it is enriching beyond belief to see how this film affects an audience. People cry, they shout, and talk back to the screen. The audience really does get emotional.

Could you give us a quick update on where things stand since shooting wrapped?
The classes were officially closed in January 2012 and Mr. Acosta is no longer allowed to teach Latino or social justice literature. Books by Latino authors were boxed up and removed from the classroom. Even William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, have vanished for fear students might use critical race theory or a social justice lens to analyze these texts.

Mr. Gonzalez can no longer teach American Government from a social justice perspective and can only teach American Government. The school board is monitoring the teachers and the student’s work is collected periodically to make sure they are obeying the new law. This environment is incredibly stressful for the teachers and also the students. Mr. Gonzalez, after teaching for 20 years, might be let go this summer. Sean Arce, the state director of Mexican American Studies, has already been laid off.

The students are continuing their education at our local community college, the University of Arizona, or with online classes. We saw one alum at a Smith College screening recently and she told us the main reason she was at Smith was because of Mr. Gonzalez!

The fate of the program is now in the hands of lawyer Richard Martinez and we are waiting to hear from a federal judge, who is expected to make a summary judgment about the constitutionality of the law that dismantled the program. It is a dramatic legal battle that could potentially go all the way to the Supreme Court.

The independent film business is no cake walk. What keeps you motivated?
Our fans and the audience are incredible! Right now I feel very energized by the screenings on campuses. The college students and the professors and their intense desire to improve their own communities have provided me with a lifetime of energy and inspiration.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Public television is the only real outlet for independent documentarians and it is perfect for documentaries like the ones we make — local stories with national resonance.

What do your audiences most often ask at screenings?
Most audience members want to know how such a thing could happen and how to prevent these things from happening in their own communities. The documentary shows the process of politicians creating policy that shuts down a beneficial program and how this can lead to banning books.

What didn’t you get done when you were making the film?
I missed precious time with my family in Southern California and cooking sumptuous meals and delectable birthday cakes for friends and family. Some of my favorite things to do when I feel freer and less burdened by deadlines include biking and gardening. I am most happy walking and meandering on a trail in the mountains or any place visual and pedestrian-friendly.

What are your three favorite films?
My tastes skew towards foreign film and especially the work of filmmakers from Mexico. I also enjoy the films of Werner Herzog, Kristof Kieslowski, Michael Moore, Kar Wai Wong, Mira Nair, Fatih Akin, Lucrecia Martel, and many others.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Mix up your computer time with travel, lengthy outdoor meals, and hiking mountains. Nature will calm and inspire. Do not let anything stand in your way, or as Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going!”

What do you eat to keep your inspiration and energy going?
A perfect cappuccino at a cozy café with a gal pal inspires me. Or a sandwich with fresh basil, mint, and jalapeños from my garden.

Brooke Shelby Biggs