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'Scars are Like Tattoos but With Better Stories'

"Trial By Fire," a new documentary about burn survivors by a Wilton filmmaker has a chance at an Oscar nomination―and raising awareness about hope after devastating injury.

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The idea of being burned, for me and so many others, is a nightmare to even imagine. How does anyone get through what must be unbearable pain after being badly burned?

For Connecticut filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris, telling burn survivor stories has become a mission of compassion, and her new documentary, “Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged,” focuses on the triumph of human spirit through very emotional storytelling of what happens after the injury and physical healing. 

“Documentary filmmakers are always looking for their next idea,” Smith-Harris recalled. “Sitting in a departure lounge at O’Hare, I opened up a People magazine. There was an article on kids in a burn camp who had attended as campers who were now back as counselors. That’s what caught my eye. It was like a light switch. I said, ‘This is my next film:  burn survivors.’”

She added, “The idea chose me. I had an immediate empathy, an immediate amount of compassion for these people. You’re exactly the same person one day, and the next day your life is forever, inalterably changed and people treat you completely differently because of how you look—and that’s wrong.”

The film highlights the journeys of several burn survivors, including celebrity J.R. Martinez of “Dancing with the Stars” fame.

“We’re fortunate to have J.R., he’s a friendly, familiar face. People feel comfortable with him, and he’s a really good looking, sexy guy! He has a whole positive outlook.”

Smith-Harris emphasized that it’s that positive outlook shared by all the survivors she profiles at the heart of her movie. “It is ‘trial by fire,’ that’s the first part. But their lives are re-forged, and that is the focus—focusing on the strength and courage of these burn survivors, and how they reclaim and re-forge their lives.”

After making the film, Smith-Harris knows the takeaway lesson for viewers is universal and something that’s ultimately relatable for all.

“People can’t get past burn pain—we’ve all burned a finger, we know how painful it is: ‘Oh man, this is killing me!’ The idea of being badly burned all over your body is terrifying. People never think past the pain. But what happens after you get through the pain? There may be disfigurement, there may be mobility issues. But you still have a life. You still have dreams. You still have people who love you, and a community, and you still want to finish school, have a career, get married. You still are the same person,” she said.

“It can happen to anyone at any time, but this is not a cautionary tale. This is really about celebrating courage and strength and human resilience. People who watch it realize the film isn’t just about burn survivors; they’re reminded of their own hardships—cancer, illness, economic downturn, and it reinforces that if those people can do it, I can do it. We all need inspiration these days, it’s tough for everyone. The message is of hope. I want this film to make people feel good.”

Spreading the Word

Smith-Harris has screened the film for various groups, including the World Burn Congress, in front of burn survivors, firefighters, critical-care nurses and doctors. “That, to me, was the most invaluable screening I could have done, because to get their stamp of approval, to get them behind me and to have their respect and their belief that I did a good job telling their stories, representing their community—that was the most important thing to me.”

The film is getting its official debut in August at DocuWeeks 2012, a prestigious documentary film festival that will showcase the movie in theatrical runs in both New York and Los Angeles. The film will be screened twice a day at the IFC Center in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Aug. 3–9.

Being included in this festival presents Smith-Harris with an outstanding opportunity for international recognition, but it comes with a double-edged sword—finding the funding necessary to take part is a big hurdle for her to overcome.

We need about $25,000 to participate but it gives you tremendous validation, it elevates you to the next league. The amazing part about it is it will qualify us for a number of prestigious awards, notably for consideration for an Academy Award nomination.”

Finding financial support for entering the film festival isn’t Smith-Harris’ only fundraising challenge; getting the money to pay for all the production costs has been difficult and is still an ongoing need.

In fact, Smith-Harris, and her husband Bill who is executive producing, haven’t taken a salary in the two-plus years since they started production.

“That has been the only challenge. These are challenging economic times. Companies, individuals and foundations—maybe it’s subconscious, but the subject makes them uncomfortable, before they even give it a chance.”

But she’s keeping it in perspective, knowing why getting the film made is crucial. “It has been a joy making this film:  I have met so many inspirational people. It’s changed me as a person, it’s changed me as a filmmaker. I feel privileged to have made this film. It’s a powerful film that will have a huge impact. But with the frustrating question of funding, some weeks I’ve had bad weeks. Then I remember—what’s my bad week compared to [a burn survivor’s] bad week.”

The Harrises have secured some corporate sponsorship—Shriner’s Hospital for Children, who has four major burn hospitals in the U.S., was an early sponsor; as well, First Alert, the safety company, stepped up with funding.

“Most of our support has been from individuals, and that has been wonderful. We still have a huge shortfall—we’re looking for that keystone, corporate sponsor at the $100,000 level.”

Getting the movie screened at the festival will hopefully bring interest from distributors and other investors, and lead to additional screenings elsewhere. “Bill keeps saying, ‘Harvey’s going to call!’” laughed Smith-Harris, in reference to Hollywood producing mogul Harvey Weinstein.

The movie’s tagline, "Scars are like tattoos but with better stories," was a quote from Karin McKemey, one of the survivors profiled in “Trial By Fire.” She and her son, Connor, were both burned in a backyard accident. “They believe, as a family, that they’re better now. People say, ‘I wouldn’t want to go through the pain again, but I wouldn’t change what happened,’” marveled Smith-Harris.

It’s that astonishing life approach after an incredible journey that speaks to anyone who watches the film.

“I feel like the film works on a lot of levels,” added Smith-Harris. “It gives a voice and a face to people who sometimes get marginalized. I feel like it has an important fire safety message and has the potential to save lives. And I feel on a larger level, this film is about human resilience—we all have it inside us, we all have that strength, courage and power. We see that humanity in all of us.”

"Thank You"

Fire safety resonates for Smith-Harris all year, and she posts safety information on the film’s Facebook page for her more than 2,200 followers. As the Fourth of July holiday approaches, she’ll do the same, knowing people will be using sparklers and other types of fireworks at home.

It’s that call to action that Smith Harris hopes people will also feel after watching the film. “We hope to save lives too. This is a powerful, human story, but there is an educational aspect to it. If this inspires you to go home and check the batteries in your smoke detectors, or go through your fire escape plan with your family, or double check with your high school that there are safety measures in the chemistry lab, then we will have had an impact.”

But above all, the film carries a message of hope. Smith-Harris recently received a letter from a woman who watched “Trial By Fire” at the 2012 Canadian Burn Survivor’s Conference, and it underscored how well she’s achieving her mission of compassion: 

Dear Megan, Thank you for your beautiful film. I feel honored to be a burn survivor. You were able to capture honest, real moments. Thank you for showing the world that there is so much more to us than scars.  Sincerely, Kim Sutherland.

That feedback meant the world to Smith-Harris. “When you get feedback like that, it really keeps you going.”

What can you do? Visit the “Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged” webpage to learn more, follow the filmmakers on the movie’s Facebook page, and consider helping them reach their fundraising goals with a contribution at their fundraising website.

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