By Ozzi Ramirez
Welcome to NYWIFT, Mary Skinner! Mary is a New York-based filmmaker whose projects include the widely-celebrated 2010 documentary Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers and Cuba Cubano Cañibano. The former was showcased at many festivals and events before being acquired by PBS and presented in many languages worldwide, in addition to receiving accolades that included the Best Documentary at the UK Jewish Film Festival and the 2012 Gracie Award for Best Public TV Documentary by and about a woman. The latter was an Official Selection of the United Nations Association Film Festival in 2017.
Having graduated from UC Berkeley with a specialization in theater, Mary was one of the founding members of the Riverside Shakespeare Company in New York and the producer of the play Coming to See Aunt Sophie. Previously, she worked as a corporate marketing executive in New York and San Francisco and established 2B Productions in 2003.
Read more about Mary as we discuss her close friendship with a legendary historical figure, the relationship between her artistry and family’s connection to the Holocaust, and the magic of both theater and PBS!
Describe yourself. Give us your elevator pitch!
Mary Skinner is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, librettist, and producer. She is best known for bringing to light unknown stories of the Polish resistance during WWII. More recently her work has focused on courageous women, artists, and the experiences of refugees around the world.
In addition to your work on Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, you produced the stage play Coming to See Aunt Sophie by Arthur Feinsod, which is about a World War II Polish spy who took significant risks while reporting firsthand accounts of what he witnessed during the Holocaust.
What is your connection to WWII Poland, and why is it a subject you are interested in revisiting? Can you describe the strengths of theatre as an art form that has the potential to educate and perhaps transform audiences?
My mother was a Polish Catholic survivor of WWII. She spent almost four years in a sub-camp of Buchenwald and was the only one in her family to survive the war. I grew up with her trauma and was keen to know more about it. But there were hardly any books or films to see then about the Polish resistance, how hard they fought, the uprisings they waged, and how so many of them (Polish “patriots”) were silenced and imprisoned by the Russians after the war. In Poland, their stories were censored and suppressed. In the U.S. they were politically inconvenient.
After the fall of Communism in 1989, I was determined to find out more about my mother’s mother and her family. That search led me to Irena Sendler. Sendler was the kind of woman my mother remembered when she spoke of her own mother and her mother’s friends. They were teachers, social workers, activists, organizers – very, very brave women during the war. I felt I had to tell their stories to honor them.
Because I was trained as an actor, I always look for the dramatic core of a story, and the engine that drives a character. Sometimes a play is the most effective way to capture that, especially with characters like Irena Sendler and Jan Karski. You want an audience to really experience the stakes, conflict, complexities, and terror they faced as human beings and had to overcome. Only then can you understand their heroism.
I felt my friend Arthur Feinsod captured the character of Karski brilliantly, and I was proud to produce his play in 2014. More recently, I wrote a libretto for a new musical based on my film about Sendler. It just had a very successful premiere in Poland with a Ukrainian actress in the role of Irena. With beautiful music and lyrics, very dramatic scenography, and the Ukranian war now raging, as a musical, Irena’s story is more powerful than ever.
While filming your documentary Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers, you became friends with Irena while she spent her later years at a nursing home. Having lived the horrors of the Holocaust, challenging the Nazis repeatedly, and narrowly escaping, she was an eyewitness.
What are some relevant details Irena shared with you about this dark period in history that might have been misrepresented or not addressed in the media and history books? Did she offer any new perspectives that surprised you?
Irena was 94 when I first began visiting her. At first, I thought of her as she had been portrayed in the popular press at the time; one woman who stood alone against the Nazis and single-handedly rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. But she kept insisting to me that this just wasn’t true and she did not act alone. I thought she was being modest but she was telling the truth. This was an elaborate underground conspiracy of women that operated for five years, right under the noses of the Nazis. They worked in jobs controlled by the Nazis but lied and doctored their paperwork, and sometimes even stole money from them to be able to do what they did.
This was extremely dangerous and those caught were tortured and executed. I learned it wasn’t enough to smuggle a Jewish child past the guards at the ghetto wall. They had to calm them, care for them, keep them alive for years, move them from one hideout to another, teach them to speak Polish, disguise them, fight to get them food and medicine and then, after the war, work to have them re-united with their Jewish families.
There were dozens of women involved who used code names and worked together in secret, according to the rules of conspiracy, and only knew what they needed to know, and no more, so they would confess nothing if tortured. They had to trust each other and be very brave. Irena was older and more experienced than many of them, knew how to work the system, had many relationships from before the war, and knew who to trust. She didn’t have children of her own yet, which was important because the Nazis would use the children of people working in the resistance as hostages.
So, she quickly became the leader of the group, and here is where her real superpower emerged. Irena Sendler was a master organizer. She stayed on top of every detail and never quit. She got people to work together. They trusted and followed her, and she inspired and empowered them. She knew who was good at what, and when she asked for a favor, it was impossible to refuse her. This is what it took to save all those children and what I still find so fascinating about her. Feminine leadership and the way women get things done – without hierarchies, through networks, quietly, unknown, unseen, too often unacknowledged – when the cause really matters.
For centuries, Polish women practiced the rules of conspiracy, and schooled their daughters on these rules through one occupation after another. When men were imprisoned or went away to fight and women were left to resist without weapons, to preserve and protect the country’s heritage in secret, they worked together in this way. They continued to do so during the years of solidarity and again today as they find ways to embrace and accommodate 2 million Ukrainian refugees.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words! As the director of Cuba Cubano Cañibano, your 2015 documentary about the life and work of Raul Cañibano, what do his photographs say to you about Cuba and its people? What would you hope other artists who see this film take away from Cañibano’s approach to his craft?
Raul Canibano’s work is on a par with some of the greatest photographers of all time – Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Salgado. He’s a master of light, framing, surrealism, and decisive moments. The way his work captures the humor and humanity of the Cuban people is unrivaled, yet hardly anyone outside of Cuba knows anything about him.
I think he deserves to be better known and studied, because of the way he has mastered the art and craft of photography over decades of working with hardly any resources and virtually no training. What he captures with his camera and prints through developing his own homemade chemicals speaks to the creative ingenuity of the Cuban people. For years they have struggled with terrible scarcity and yet continue to emerge again and again with great art, humor, love, and resourcefulness.
During recent years, some politicians have proposed cutting funding for PBS. How far-reaching has PBS been in connecting Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers to viewers, and what are the upsides of having a documentary available through this network?
I was an independent producer making a film for non-commercial purposes with funding from grants and charitable donations. My intention was to preserve a piece of unknown history – to inform, educate and inspire audiences with a powerful story of moral courage. At the time, TV Poland wanted the story, but the US commercial distributors I spoke with were unwilling to do Holocaust stories during this time. PBS was really my only hope for reaching an American audience. When PBS and KQED acquired my film for National Broadcast in 2011, this meant I was able to reach every PBS station in the country, over 6 million households.
Irena Sendler: In the Name of Their Mothers was distributed to all major US libraries and made available in schools and universities across the country. Today, the film continues to be used for education and at community events, and is still streaming on Amazon and Apple TV. Since it’s release, dozens of books, plays, TV programs, films and podcasts have been done about Sendler and the Polish resistance, all thanks to awareness created by PBS. With antisemitism on the rise and war fomenting in Central Europe, it’s more important than ever for Americans to know this history. For independent filmmakers like me, PBS was essential.
What attracted you to NYWIFT?
NYWIFT brings together some of the most talented and inspiring women in the city. Their resources and programs are fantastic. They give independent writers and filmmakers like me the chance to network, learn, and mentor each other. During the pandemic, they were invaluable for keeping our network alive.
What is the best and worst advice you’ve received?
The best advice I received was to articulate and stay clear about your personal reasons for embarking on a project – your “Why am I doing this?” You will need that meaning and purpose, that “North Star” when things get tough and you face hurdles.
The worst advice I got was that nobody is interested in an old woman from Poland.
How did the pandemic affect your career?
Most of my work could be done remotely although not being able to travel set me back a bit. Pitching over Zoom stinks. We were not able to move forward in the US on the musical we developed about Irena Sendler, but fortunately, they premiered a brilliant production of it in Poland.
What is next for you? Do you have any exciting projects in the works?
In addition to writing and developing my own work, I help documentary filmmakers as a consulting producer. Right now, I am working with a Persian Jewish filmmaker, Shirin Raban, on her film about family members who were forced to flee a 2500 history in Iran and adapt to new lives in the U.S.
Mary Skinner’s Links:
Plus, connect with her on Instagram at @NYCSkinner.
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