Eren McGinnis lives in Tucson but grew up in Imperial Beach. She still remembers trips to the Palm Theater and swimming near the Tijuana Slough as her father went fishing.
“I’m really into culture and diversity and IB was interesting when I grew up there and I think it’s still interesting. It’s so close to the border and brings its own character,” she said.
Her upbringing helped her become a curious documentary filmmaker who likes to focus on social justice, social issues and people trying to hold on to things that are important to them.
Her latest film, Precious Knowledge, is about an ethnic studies program in Tucson. Mexican American Studies classes were recently shut down by the Tucson Unified School District’s governing board.
Though the documentary has not yet been released, it has already received more attention than any documentary she has ever produced across the span of three decades of work.
The film and won Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Documentary and Best Documentary Feature Special Mention honors. Since then she has been all over the country.
Last month the film was shown at the Havana Film Festival.
Next week on Feb. 7 she will return to her hometown for a showing of Precious Knowledge at San Diego Mesa College and another documentary, The Spirituals, at San Diego City College.
Precious Knowledge will also be previewed at Lincoln High School Feb. 25.
Afterward she will take the film to Philadelphia, New Jersey, and the campuses of Ohio State University, UMass and Harvard University.
The documentary is scheduled to be played on the PBS series Independent Lens May 17.
“We’re just responding to demand,” McGinnis said. “There has been lots of controversy about ethnic studies and its benefits and I think our film shows why ethnic studies is important and why people are so hungry for the film.”
Audience reviews on college campuses have been primarily positive so far, she said, but she expects that to change after Precious Knowledge makes its television debut.
“Ethnic studies seems to bring out in a weird kind of way the worst in people,” she said. “And I think it’s a bigger kind of issue that we live in a multicultural society: Accept it or hold on to some kind of white privilege.”
McGinnis considers herself an advocate of ethnic studies because she has seen how it works for students from the predominately Latino community who attend Tucson High School.
“I think that any kind of program that engages young people to get excited about education should be researched and investigated and encouraged instead of shut down,” she said.
“I’m also an advocate of whatever kind of program works for a particular community. If something works in IB that gets kids excited about reading, going to school etc., it doesn’t necessarily need to be ethnic studies. It could be art, science, whatever it is that’s working for kids.”
McGinnis recently interviewed Christine Sleeter, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who wrote a research review titled The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies.
Sleeter's review found that in nearly every instance, ethnic studies was found to have a positive impact on the academic performance of students of color.
The review also found that ethnic studies classes can be “emotionally challenging” for white students at first but ultimately benefits all students’ social and academic intelligence.
“One thing I learned from Sleeter, that she found in her own research, is that most of the critiques of ethnic studies are really grounded in people not knowing what they're talking about or grounded in knee-jerk fears,” she said.
The Spirituals will be previewed at San Diego City College Feb. 7.
Before moving to Tucson, McGinnis lived in Kentucky and her neighbor was Dr. Everett McCorvey, an opera singer who leads the American Spiritual Ensemble. The ensemble is a group dedicated to continuing the tradition of negro spirituals.
“We were just fascinated by negro spiritual and we discovered it’s one of America’s first music art forms,” she said.
From the negro spiritual came jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop.
After making a serious and political nerve pinching film like Precious Knowledge, she likes to take on stories of a lighter subject.
Dos Vatos Productions’ next project may be a film that documents the lives of street dogs in a town south of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
While visiting her exchange student son there last year, she said she spent time observing the dogs.
“I noticed they tend to do the same thing every single day so they definitely have a routine. If I could compare them to anything, they were like teenage boys. They like to hang out on the beach,” she said laughing.
“I have to be honest, we have more ideas and projects than we have time left in our life, seriously,” she said.