Martha & Ethel

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