Not long after arriving in Tucson from Kentucky, documentary film makers Ari Luis Palos and Eren Isabel McGinnis learned about the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson Unified School District. The academic studies initiative, which teaches critical thinking skills to students and has enhanced the eduction of hundreds of minority youths, was under attack by critics.
McGinnis and Palos saw the possibility of a critical film and plunged into the world of cultural and educational politics, and began filming while neither filmmaker realized how the debate would evolve.
More than years later, Palos and McGinnis will unveil in Tucson their 72-minute documentary, "Precious Knowledge," which focuses on the successes of TUSD's ethnic studies, its students and teachers, and the fight to save it.
"It's a perfect story," said Palos, the film's director. "You have beautiful kids and these nasty politicians."
"Precious Knowledge" comes at a precipitous time as TUSD faces a state-mandated deadline to dismantle the program, which has offered elective courses to students, primarily at the high school level, or face stiff financial punitive action.
"I'm a parent and it didn't seem right what they're doing with children," said McGinnis, the film's producer.
The pair had complete access to the ethnic studies classes at Tucson Magnet High School. They filmed students in classes, in their homes with family and in the streets with supporters protesting efforts by state Attorney General Tom Horne to silence the program.
While McGinnis and Palos give Horne and State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal their say on why they want to eliminate the non-mandatory classes, the film is primarily about the students.
"Precious Knowledge" - one of the four faces of the Mayan calender - delves into the students' passion for learning and in some cases their transformation from near dropouts to furious learners.
"The film makes itself," said Palos.
They began filming Oct. 31, 2008, after months of getting permission from TUSD, the school and the students' families. Focusing on several students - Pricila Rodriguez, Crystal Terriquez, Gilbert Esparza and Mariah Harvey - the filmmakers follow them through what turns out to be a difficult and emotional school year. Political pressure mounts against ethnic studies.
However, it was only a precursor of what was to come - SB 1070.
That law, which was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer in April 2010 and whose major contentious sections were put on hold by a federal judge, is an attempt by the Republican state legislature and governor to create state immigration laws independent of the federal government. Passage of the law fomented a strong push back by ethnic studies' students, many of whom are children of immigrants.
In one case, tearfully talks about the day when federal immigration agents apprehended and deported her father.
Within the larger political fight over SB 1070 was the struggle to defend ethnic studies. The film is part of the larger context of cultural and educational debate.
Political and cultural conservatives, lead by Horne, Huppenthal, state Senator Russell Pearce and Brewer, are at the national forefront to create laws to stem illegal immigration, on one hand, and on the other hand block cultural changes created by the growing Latino population.
While the film lands on the side of the students and ethnic studies, McGinnis and Palos said the film can serve as a starting point to discuss ethnic studies.
"If they (opponents) want a discussion we want people of all points of view to be part of the discussion," said Palos.
However, the filmmakers are expecting a backlash to their film from the very same political and media voices who have hammered away at ethnic studies since late 2006 when Chicana activist Dolores Huerta told a group of Tucson high students that "Republicans hate Latinos." Horne, then the superintendent of public instruction, sent his deputy to meet with the students, some of whom jeered her.
From that point ethnic studies became a primary target among Republican legislators, talk radio hosts and even some TUSD educators and board members.
The district last week released a study, it commissioned, that claims students in ethnic studies do not perform any better than students who do not take ethnic study classes. The study punches a hole in the argument of ethnic studies' teachers and supporters that the program propels students to college at higher rates.
Although Precious Knowledge was completed before TUSD's study, it clearly shows what no study can document: the yearning to learn.
If there is one dominant, indisputable quality about ethnic studies, as shown in the documentary, is that the program empowers students and motivates them to learn.
No study or critic can dispute that.