For more than 20 years, Jill Ettinger (A.B. 1989) worked in the entertainment industry that we all know from TV—the one full of glamour, big money, A-list musicians, and movie stars. “A lot of it was fun and really fantastic,” she says, “but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.” Even after working so many years in the business and doing so successfully, she says, “I never quite felt like it was a place where I fit in.”
Ettinger originally moved to L.A. in 1995 to get a graduate film degree. She wanted to make films that would change the world, but she found Los Angeles wasn’t really the place for such projects. “Those kinds of films were very rarely getting made,” she says, “and, at the time, I didn’t realize they were often independently produced. So I found myself working in the film and music industries instead. It wasn’t until much later that I steered my career where I wanted to be.”
That place was the intersection of entertainment and social change. She spent three years as the vice president of partnerships and distribution at Brave New Films, a nonprofit organization that produces short- and long-form documentaries on social justice issues. The organization produces a staggering range of films on topics such as gun violence, immigration, mental health, the Flint water crisis, and voter suppression. Ettinger oversaw the part of the organization that works to get the films seen by as many people as possible. The goal, Ettinger says, was to activate activists. “We didn’t just want people to see the films. We wanted them to get involved.”
Before the pandemic, Brave New Films organized screenings in schools, libraries, bookstores, and faith institutions—places where people were already accustomed to gathering and where they could now also take in a film. When the pandemic hit, the organization pivoted to virtual screenings, “which was really interesting in some ways,” she says. “The virtual screenings allowed us to reach more people.”
For example, Ettinger says, in the summer of 2020, “we released Suppressed 2020: The Fight to Vote. It was about what had happened with Stacey Abrams and the 2018 midterm elections in Georgia, and it warned about a growing wave of voter suppression movements around the country. Now that story is all over the news, but because we were ahead of the curve it allowed us to help inform the narrative.”
As the pandemic continued, however, it hit the company hard. “It’s the same situation that faced many nonprofits: Without the funding, we had very few films in production for the near future.”
Though she left Brave New Films at the end of 2021, Ettinger is not leaving this kind of work. “I have learned so much from observing how organizations, politicians, and progressive coalitions all work together and have enjoyed actively participating in the conversations and actions. It’s really been fulfilling and fascinating, and very instructive.”
In retrospect, the journey Ettinger began as a political science student has only become clearer. “It’s part of that long path that I can now reflect on. I had always been an activist at heart, but I didn’t know that I could make a career out of it. In the ’80s, everybody was going to work on Wall Street and I was trying to figure out what my place in the world was going to be. I think a lot about how much Michigan really shaped who I was and helped me to become the person I am. A lot of my experiences there helped me find my way.”
That way has led her right back to activism and politics, and she’s eager to work with the ideas, groups, and behaviors that were at the heart of her political science degree. “When I was with Brave New Films, I was talking with different groups and coalitions about criminal legal reform or transforming the courts. We talked about judges. If we were potentially interested in a topic, we might have shot a note over to Elizabeth Warren’s team and said, ‘Hey are you really going to work on eliminating student debt and can we be of service? If so, we’d love to have a call with you about that.’”
Ettinger’s belief that stories and film can change the world is as strong as ever. “Film, especially documentary film, has the ability to tell the human story. There’s a lot of coverage about the issues and there’s a lot of social media advocacy, but film helps people relate to issues in a different way. Suppressed 2020 shows the plight of people in some Black neighborhoods who had to wait in line to cast a vote for four or five or six hours. And then the film cuts to a white neighborhood where people say, ‘Oh, yeah, voting was really efficient. The system works just fine.’ But through documentaries, we can see that everything was not working fine. We see people facing challenges, issues, and inequities that we didn’t know existed because they’re not broadly presented in the media.”
Ettinger is committed to telling these stories and making sure what’s going on in the world gets presented on film. “I found a way to use my experience from marketing entertainment to contribute to the social change that I want to see,” she says. “I think this is the work of democracy. Right now it’s in jeopardy, so it seems more urgent than it has before.”
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