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Critic’s Notebook; Sundance: Some Surprises Amid the Frivolity

From the New York Times:

One of the most revealing, eloquent and well-received films at the festival, a documentary about two elderly women called "Martha and Ethel," still sounds awful on paper.

The film, by Jyll Johnstone and Barbara Ettinger, is about the two nannies who raised them. Martha, a German refugee, worked for the Johnstones for 30 years, then retired to an apartment in Queens. Ethel, a black woman who brought up the Ettinger children, still lives with Mrs. Ettinger. This idea sounded so bad on paper that the film makers applied for more than 50 grants to help with the budget and were turned down every time.

But what sounds like a narrow view of a privileged world is ambitious and emotionally deep. An affectionate portrait of two completely different women -- the stern, well-meaning Martha and the loving, self-assured Ethel -- it deftly becomes a history of social change over 40 years, and a meditation on motherhood and family. Martha and Ethel themselves, interviewed in their late 80's, are such rich screen presences that one viewer asked, in a question-and-answer session with the film makers here: "Does Ethel have an agent yet?"

Ms. Johnstone, a former actress, and Ms. Ettinger, a former photographer, may be first-time film makers, but they are not naifs.

Read the entire review here.

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