Classroom Battle

A documentary on TUSD's ethnic-studies program gets its Tucson premiere

When filmmakers Ari Luis Palos and Eren Isabel McGinnis started working on their documentary Precious Knowledge almost three years ago, they hoped the film would have an upbeat ending.

Instead, the ethnic-studies controversy depicted in the film remains unresolved—and seems to be getting even more contentious.

"I've always thought the kids were going to win," McGinnis said. "Right now, though, this very moment, I'm not so sure. But I did think, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could have a triumphant ending, and the politicians would back off and come to their senses?'"

The documentary, which will be screened on Thursday, March 24, at the Fox Tucson Theatre, follows several students as they take classes in Chicano literature, history and government at Tucson Magnet High School in 2008, while then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne was waging a war against the classes, accusing them of teaching the students to be anti-American.

When the Tucson Weekly first talked to McGinnis and Palos—who've been making documentaries together since the late 1990s through their production company, Dos Vatos—Horne had recently become the state's attorney general-elect. (See "Inside Ethnic Studies," Nov. 25, 2010.)

Horne made it clear that in his new position, he'd make life difficult for the Tucson Unified School District if it continued to allow the Mexican-American studies classes, in his eyes defying the new law—2010's House Bill 2281—that he helped draft, which made the classes illegal.

Horne wasn't the only newly elected official troubling the filmmakers and ethnic-studies activists. Former state Sen. John Huppenthal, who ran on a platform against what he called "raza studies," was elected to take Horne's old job.

Now TUSD faces a state-mandated deadline to end the classes—or to figure out how to deal with a 10 percent cut in state funding as punishment.

Meanwhile, Precious Knowledge is ready for public viewing. On Friday, March 18, McGinnis and Palos drove to San Diego for the San Diego Latino Film Festival, joined by three students in the film: Crystal Terriquez, Pricila Hernandez and Alanna Castro.

For McGinnis, who grew up in Imperial Beach, going to San Diego for the film festival offered a special homecoming, as well as the opportunity to showcase her and Palos' work at a festival that helps celebrate the Mexican-American experience.

"We had no choice but to enter (the film festival) with our rough cut, but still, they were so impressed with it, and they accepted the film. That's essentially the only reason we're playing it in San Diego before Tucson," McGinnis said.

Precious Knowledge ended up winning two awards—Audience Favorite and the Special Jury Prize.

"Everywhere we went, the people of San Diego were so warm and welcoming," McGinnis said. "We got to do four screenings—the festival, two for San Diego-area high school students, and (one for) college students. People liked it."

Last year, McGinnis and Palos were still raising money to help them finish the project. Additional financing was difficult to find, so the couple had to get other gigs in order to complete Precious Knowledge. For example, they're currently doing work for the Discovery Channel, which hired the couple to work on a documentary about SB 1070.

"Basically, it was very challenging to fundraise the entire time. We finally we got to the point where we just had to finish it and get an independent gig to help pay the bills so we could also begin working on distribution (of Precious Knowledge)," McGinnis said.

During a phone interview during the drive to San Diego, Terriquez said she's excited to finally see the entire film, since she's only seen the trailer, which shows Terriquez talking about what the classes have meant to her and her family.

"I remember thinking, 'Who are these people?'" Terriquez said, remembering when McGinnis and Palos began showing up to film. "We always felt that we had to be careful, because we wondered if they would attack us in some way.

"But that didn't happen. Instead, what we've experienced with them is that they wanted to be there with us whenever we took up the fight. They cared. It was something amazing."

McGinnis said the Thursday premiere in Tucson is a much-needed celebration, which will include artwork, mariachi and folklorico performances, and the Tucson High School drum line, which is featured in the film.

"There has been so much negative out there about ethnic studies," McGinnis said. "We want this to be a positive for the community. A lot of the students are going to dress up and treat it like a big Hollywood event."

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