Martha & Ethel

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Delicate work is being transacted in this unique and unforgettable documentary about two nannies. Producer and director Jyll Johnstone was one of five children in the care of Martha Kneifel, a refugee from prewar Germany who ruled the Johnstone kids with a firm hand. Co-producer Barbara Ettinger, a childhood pal of Johnstone's in Manhattan, was one of six children who found a soft touch in Ethel Edwards, a nanny from a sharecropping family in the rural South. Johnstone, an actress, and Ettinger, a photographer, wanted to film a tribute to the two nannies (Martha died in October) who played such an integral part in their formative years.

They did a lot more. What could have been a mere memoir becomes a provocative document about the changing nature of family. Johnstone and Ettinger were children of '40s privilege; today, child care is often a necessity. Through Martha and Ethel and those whose lives they've touched, the filmmakers catch the emotional highs and lows of surrogate parenting and craft a touching film of harsh, haunting truth.

From The Archives Issue 702: February 23, 1995

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