Martha & Ethel
1994 Directed by Jylle Johnstone. Starring Martha Kniefel, Ethel Edwards, Jylle Johnstone, Barbara Ettinger.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., April 28, 1995
With the arrival of last year's celebrated documentary Hoop Dreams the cinematic climate seems ripe for more nonfiction films. Enter Martha and Ethel, a film not only about two nannies but also about the pressures of motherhood, child-rearing, and the bonds between mothers and daughters. Director-producer Johnstone and co-producer Ettinger present the documentary as a tribute to Martha Kniefel and Ethel Edwards, the two women who raised them from infancy to adulthood. The film's narrative is neatly sectioned into segments about Martha's and Ethel's own childhoods, their recollections of working as nannies for the two families, and their current experiences. Johnstone narrates the segments devoted to her nanny Martha, and Ettinger does the voiceover for the sections about Ethel. What at first appears to be an indictment of upper-middle class women in the Fifties who hired other women to care for their children settles into a complex exploration of the presence of two “mothers” in Johnstone's and Ettinger's lives. This complexity comes from the choices made in interviewing specific family members as well as from the editing decisions by Toby Shimin. Little attempt is made to draw any conclusions about the “proper” way to raise children. Even the film's namesakes, Martha and Ethel, represent two distinct methods of rearing children: Martha, a German émigré, favors the no-nonsense, disciplinarian approach; Ethel, a black woman from South Carolina, believes in lavishing affection and unconditional support on her charges. Although the film's narrators make it plain that they have a very strong bond with these women who raised them, Johnstone and Ettinger interview their own mothers and incorporate a lot of information that situates their mothers' decisions to pass on the raising of their own children within the context of the economic and population boom of the 1950s. The filmmakers seem ambivalent about their relationships with their birth mothers; each woman is referred to only as Mrs. Johnstone and Mrs. Ettinger, suggesting a formal connection between the mothers and the daughters. However, as one of the Johnstone siblings says, “My mother was a very good mother, given her situation.” Interviews serve to humanize the women, illustrating that the issue of hiring someone to help with the children was indeed less clear-cut than it may have appeared. Martha and Ethel's blend of interviews, home movies, and still photographs, while sectioned into distinct parts, at times seems a bit jumbled. Nonetheless, the film is a loving and bittersweet portrait of two strong women, each of whom devoted her adult life to caring for another woman's children. But, as is made apparent throughout the scenes in Martha and Ethel and by Ethel herself at the end of the film, “You don't have to birth a child to love it.”