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MARTHA AND ETHEL

USA, 1994 (MIFF 1994, Documentaries)

Director: Jyll Johnstone

Martha And Ethel is a unique and indelible portrait of two lifelong nannies, strong-willed women who subjugated their own lives to raise someone else's family (as ninety year-old Ethel states, "You don't have to birth a child to love it"). What makes this extremely personal documentary particularly insightful is the fact that it has been made by two filmmakers who as children were raised by Martha Kneifel and Ethel Edwards.

The nannies, both refugees in a sense - one from pre-war Germany and the other, a black woman from the rural South - came to stay with their surrogate families for over thirty years. The story resonates with the interior journey of the children as much as the exterior odyssey of the nannies as many unanticipated issues come up about the family dynamic, about the genteel world of the upper class, about discipline, nurturing and responsibility, about the changing role of women and motherhood between the 1950s and today, and about the fascinating relationship among mothers, children and nannies. Relationships emerge as closer to friendships, in one case even outlasting a marriage. The children however, now adults, are still the emotional refugees of a childhood built on feelings of confusion, divided loyalties and questionable self-esteem.

Martha And Ethel provides a rare glimpse into a series of complex relationships, but underneath, it demonstrates why the women's movement was inevitable and is still evolving. A courageous self-examination, accumulation of emotions and memories, this bittersweet film asks us to think again who is raising our children?
- Lawrence Smilth, Sundance Film Festival

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