Trial by Fire: Film takes inspiration from burn survivors

Posted on 09/25/2011


While leafing through a magazine in an airport, Megan Smith-Harris saw pictures of three burn survivors. “My heart flipped over,” said the Wiltonian who is president and owner of Pyewackitt Productions (, an independent documentary television production company. “Suddenly, I wanted to know everything: How did they get burned? How long was their recovery? What were they like before the fire? How did they reclaim their lives in the aftermath?”

As she read the article, Ms. Smith-Harris said she felt “inspired and humbled by the courage of the burn survivors. There and then, I decided to make Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. It is my hope that this film will challenge preconceived notions of beauty and engender greater empathy for burn survivors.”

One of the stories of burn survivors explored in the feature-length documentary is that of J.R. Martinez, who was badly injured when his convoy drove over a roadside bomb in Iraq, causing burns to 40% of his body. After 33 surgeries and 34 months in recovery, Mr. Martinez rebuilt his life as an actor on “All My Children” and board member of the Phoenix Society, a national association for burn survivors. He is currently appearing on this season’s “Dancing with the Stars” show. “I’m betting that he will go all the way, said Ms. Smith-Harris. “He is handsome, athletic and has a very positive attitude.”

In her new film, Mr. Martinez’s role in the film is that of a charismatic guide, said Ms. Smith-Harris. “He provides the audience with entrée into the burn world and helps to provide context to the featured stories. With honesty and integrity, J.R. shares his personal experiences both before and after his accident in Iraq.”

In his keynote address before the World Burn Congress in Galveston, Texas, last October, Mr. Martinez said, “This experience taught me so much. I’m going to accept who I am, this is who I am and I’m not going to try to please anyone. This is my body, these are my scars, this is my new uniform, and I wear it every single day and there’s nothing I can do to take it off. And I’m going to wear it as a badge of honor and I’m going to share it with everyone else. I’m going to educate the world that not everyone looks like they do in Hollywood.”

Ms. Smith Harris said this statement echoes a main theme of her film. “We sometimes feel uncomfortable when we see burn survivors because they remind us of our own mortality — that life can change in an instant,” she said. “Beyond engendering a greater sensitivity and understanding of what burn survivors endure, we hope to leave audiences with a greater sense of compassion for all human beings … Fire is unforgiving, but we don’t have to be.”

The basic reason for making the film is “to make the world a better, more accepting place,” she said. “As Gandhi said, ‘Be the change that you want to see in the world.’”

She said her documentary follows “ordinary people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film follows their journeys as they navigate the challenging physical and emotional obstacles toward recovery, reclaiming first their lives and then their dreams.”

According to Ms. Smith-Harris, burn injuries can “happen to anyone, anytime … It is estimated that one million people suffer burns every year from fires in homes, schools and workplaces as well as burns from auto accidents, chemicals, scalds and heat contact.

“Burn awareness and fire prevention are very important safety issues in this country,” said Ms. Smith-Harris, who recently also produced and directed Surrogate Stories, a two-hour special about surrogate mothers and the intended parents, which aired on the Women’s Entertainment Network in June. Her husband, Bill Harris, is the executive producer of Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged.

Ms. Smith-Harris described the film as “inspirational and uplifting.” In making the film, she said she has learned that “when you forge metal with fire it becomes stronger. It turns out the same is true of people. This theme is carried throughout the documentary.”

Surprisingly, “the majority of burn survivors we interviewed told us they would not change what happened to them even if they could,” she said. “They feel the experience of being burned has transformed their lives in ways they could not possibly have fathomed. Many believe they have accomplished greater things in their lives than they would have had they not been burned.”

For example, she said Mr. Martinez “breaks barriers and stereotypes” as an actor and as a motivational speaker.

In his keynote address last year, Mr. Martinez offered this advice to burn survivors: “You psychologically have the opportunity to actually control how people react to you,” he said. “Be open. Accept who you are. There’s millions of people in this world, and if one person in the supermarket doesn’t accept you, that’s fine. There’s a million more to choose from.”

Why does she use the term “burn survivors” and not “burn victims”? “Imagine trying to live your life with the word ‘victim’ attached to you like a barnacle,” she said. “No one wants to be a victim. If you are raped you don’t spend the remainder of your life describing yourself as a ‘rape victim.’ The same is true if you are assaulted, swindled, or involved in a bad accident. You may be a victim at the time of the event but afterwards you go back to being you. It’s important to remember that all of us are the sum of our life experiences; we are not defined by one characteristic or event.”

The film, which has been two years in the making, will be presented at a special preview screening at the World Burn Congress in Cincinnati this weekend. “It’s my love letter to them,” she said. “After that, we’ll exhibit at various film festivals and explore the viability of a theatrical run. We are also investigating a variety of broadcast distribution opportunities.”

The film is has been set up as a nonprofit production, according to Ms. Smith-Harris. “In other words, all donations are tax deductible. To date, we have received contributions both big and small, from individuals, corporations and foundations. Even though we have completed principal photography, the production is still very much in need of financial support. We are grateful for any donation whether $5 or $10; $500, $1,000 or more — every dollar helps move us closer to the finish line.”