Canadian Filmmaker Eyes Oscars’ Doc Race with ‘Trial By Fire’

Posted on 11/16/2012

Cinemablographer

Director/Producer Megan Smith-Harris, on location Cincinnati, OH

Canadian-born filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris is making a run for the Academy Awards with her first independent feature Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. Born in Toronto, Smith-Harris got her start while touring with The Second City, and then went on to produce numerous documentary profiles of Canadians for the CBC and Brave, as well as the documentary Surrogate Stories, which aired on the Women’s Television Network this year. She also honed her skills in Producers Residency Program at the Canadian Film Centre and participated in the inaugural year of Women in The Director’s Chair in Banff. Now based in Connecticut as owner of Pyewackitt Productions, the Oscar race helps to make a dream come true for Smith Harris because it means that the reach of her inspirational film could be bigger than ever. The film screened at the International Documentary Association’s DocuWeeks programme in August to qualify for the Best Documentary Feature category at the Oscars, and Smith-Harris is screening the film so that it can compete amongst over 100 other docs, some of which already have high profiles and studio support.

The extra exposure for Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged is important because the film sheds light on a subject from which conventional media typically shies away. The film offer a portrait of burn survivors and it follows seven individuals who share the stories of how they gained their scars and how their experiences as burn survivors have shaped their lives in surprising ways. Central to the film is the story of one survivor who helped gain considerable notice and challenge the way the media portrays burn survivors. The stories are intercut with scenes with actor and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez, the veteran of the Iraq war who gained famed as a contestant—and eventual winner—in Season 13 of Dancing with the Stars. Martinez’s life was forever changed when his Humvee drove over a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2003. Now, though, J.R.’s personality and courage has helped others look beyond the physical scars left by burns and see the individual behind them.

J.R. Martinez Interviewed on location in Galveston, TX

The discomfort of body image is one of the reasons Trial By Fire suggests that people are often uneasy with confronting experiences like the one J.R. had. However, Smith-Harris drew inspiration for Trial by Fire from the unlikeliest of sources: a magazine. The director describes how she was flipping through a magazine one day and was touched by a photo of three survivors. Wanting to know more about these individuals, Smith-Harris was stirred to learn the context of these burns – how did the people receive them and what was it like in the aftermath. “When you forge metal with fire it becomes stronger and in making this film,” says Smith-Harris, “I learned that the same is true of the human spirit. One of the most surprising revelations we had during production was that the majority of burn survivors interviewed for this documentary told us they would not change what happened to them even if they could. While none of them would ever want to revisit the pain and suffering they endured, the experience of being burned has transformed their lives in ways they could not possibly have fathomed.”

The transformative journey of these survivors has inspired people as Trial By Fire has made its own journey across the screens of North America. The film has screened at several venues close to the heart of the film’s campaign, such as the Firefighters Burn Institute in Sacramento, California and the Canadian Burn Survivors in Calgary, Alberta. Likewise, the film has screened on the film circuit, including a stop with noted film critic Leonard Maltin and his cinema studies class at USC, which met the film with a standing ovation. The film has also enjoyed critical acclaim while making the rounds.

Trial by Fire is returning to USC and more venues in hope of spreading the word for both the film and its cause. Smith-Harris will be joined by star/subject J.R. Martinez for a Q&A at the film’s USC screening on Sunday, November 18, and the film will also be shown in New York on Monday, November 19 with Executive-Producer Bill Harris in attendance. With high hopes, these screenings will bring more success to Trial by Fire and its journey.

Trial By Fire: Lives Re-Forged screens:

Sunday, November 18 (J.R. Martinez and filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris to do Q&A)
3:00 p.m.
USC School of Cinematic Arts
Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street
Los Angeles, CA

Monday, November 19 (Executive Producer Bill Harris to do Q&A)
8:00 p.m.
MAGNO Screening Room
729 7th Avenue (between 48th-49th)
New York, NY