Seeing The World Through a New Lens

Posted on 05/2012

By LYNN SLACK

UP CLOSE Megan Smith-Harris interviews J.R. Martinez for her documentary, Trial by Fire.

Wander through town and what do you see? The familiar stride of an early-morning jogger. A shopkeeper organizing merchandise on a sidewalk rack. Gardeners tending flowerbeds along River Road. But what do you know about these people?

Take Megan Smith-Harris, for example. Clad in exercise gear, wisps of blonde hair escaping whimsical braids, the six-foot “Friendly Amazon” often relaxes at Starbucks following a walk. Warm and approachable, one might assume she’s a woman of light conversation and leisure. That would be a mistake.

Owner of Wilton-based Pyewackitt Productions, the former actress-turnedproducer is anything but demure. With a rare blend of conviction and compassion, Smith-Harris creates documentaries that challenge stereotypes and encourage people to move beyond them.

Inspiration for her films often comes from daily life. Her current production began with a dog-eared magazine and two unforgettable eyes. Perusing an issue of People, Smith-Harris ran across an article featuring young burn survivors and the adults helping to restore their hopes for the future. Engrossed in the story, she turned the page to find the bandaged face of a boy peering back at her. “Looking into that child’s eyes shifted something inside of me,” she said. “I thought, ‘imagine waking up in the hospital bandaged from head to toe and discovering that life as you knew it had forever changed.’”

So moved was Smith- Harris that she refocused her professional lens on the creation of Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged, a documentary exploring the inspirational and surprising stories of seven ordinary people who endured the devastating effects of fire and emerged from the flames to reclaim their lives.

Early research led Smith-Harris to lasertechnology pioneer Dr. Jill Waibel who, in turn, introduced her to several patients. Other burn survivors, such as U.S. soldier and “Dancing With the Stars” celebrity, J.R. Martinez— who suffered severe burns when his Humvee hit a landmine and exploded in Iraq—crossed the producer’s path at the World Burn Congress convention.

The courage and grace with which these survivors emerged are powerful. A firefighter endures a 1,500-degree firestorm; a teenager engulfed in flames triumphs against all odds; an oil refinery worker survives a devastating explosion; a family is united through tragedy; and a 12-year-old sprint-car driver pulled from a flaming wreck aspires to return to the track. “I consider it extremely important to forge a bond of trust between myself and those I interview. They’re entrusting me to tell a deeply personal, often painful chapter of their lives and I do not take that responsibility lightly,” she says.

Producing a documentary is a complex process involving pre-screening, interviews, location scouting, camera crews, and staging. While distribution has yet to be finalized, Smith-Harris is optimistic that Trial by Fire will air on national television as well as at film festivals.

Despite the myriad details behind the film’s two-and-ahalf- year creation, Smith-Harris’ greatest challenge has been financial. “People in Wilton have been generous and we are grateful to our corporate sponsors,” she says. “However, we still need funds for distribution and educational outreach. Our goal is to air this film in every library, high school, fire department, burn hospital and burn camp across the country.”

“A million Americans are burned every year at home, school and work,” she says. “Trial by Fire is a celebration of courage, a campaign to help save lives and a movement to make the world a more respectful, welcoming place.”

A native of Toronto, Smith-Harris moved to Wilton in 2004 with her husband, Bill, and seventh-grade son Jack. She is responsible for the Wilton Library’s popular New Perspectives Documentary Film Series.