Martha & Ethel

Director: Jyll Johnstone

Institute History

  • 1994 Sundance Film Festival


We live in a time when more and more parents have to hire professional childcare. But what are the long-term consequences to our children's emotional well-being when the treasured task of child rearing, the most challenging and, at times, rewarding job in the world, is left up to an employee? Martha & Ethel is the 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." But what makes the film particularly insightful is the fact that it has been made by two of the children who were raised by Martha Kneifel and Ethel Edwards. The nannies were both refugees in a sense—one from prewar Germany and the other from the rural South—who came to stay with their surrogate families for over thirty years. But this is a story that resonates with the interior Journey of the children as much as the exterior odyssey of the nannies.

During the course of the film, 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 relationships among mothers and children and nannies. The relationships have emerged as closer to friendships, in one case even outlasting a marriage But the children, now adults, are still the emotional refugees of a childhood built on feelings of confusion, divided loyalties and questionable self-esteem.

On the surface, Martha & Ethel is a personal story that 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. The film emerges as a courageous self-examination, an accumulation of emotions and memories, a bittersweet film that asks us to think again: who is raising our children?

Friday Jan 21 9:30 am
Park City library Center

Monday Jan 24 7:00 pm
Holiday Village Cinema I

•Wednesday Jan 26 4:00 pm
Holiday Village Cinema I

Friday Jan 28 7:40 pm
Holiday Village Cinema III


— Lawrence Smith

Screening Details


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