Trial by Fire gets a jump start on the road to the Oscars

Posted on 07/17/2012

By JOAN LOWNDS

A documentary by Wilton filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris, Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged, recently moved into prime Oscar territory. The film, which focuses on burn survivors, was selected to participate in DocuWeeks, a prestigious showcase that provides documentaries with a one-week run in New York and Los Angeles, and a review in the Los Angeles Times, “thereby allowing films to qualify for Oscar consideration,” Ms. Smith-Harris said.

“Of the 186 films they have showcased in DocuWeeks in the last 15 years, 32 have been nominated for an Academy Award and several have won. So Trial by Fire – or ‘The Little Documentary That Could,’ as I like to think of it – will be having its world premiere in about five weeks, from Aug. 3 to 9, at the IFC Center New York. Our West Coast premiere will be in Los Angeles, from Aug. 10 to 16,” she said.

Among the films from DocuWeeks that have earned Academy Awards are The Blood of Yingzhou District in 2006, and Taxi to the Darkside in 2007. Hell and Back Again was an Oscar nominee in 2012, after appearing in DocuWeeks, as was The Barber of Birmingham.

Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged., a documentary by Wilton filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris, has ventured into Oscar range. The movie features J.R. Martinez, who was badly burned while in combat in Iraq, and who went on to become the winner of last season’s Dancing With the Stars show.

“A lot of these films are quite extraordinary,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “We are excited and very honored to be participating in such a prestigious documentary showcase. We’re also incredibly optimistic. Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged will now gain national exposure and the necessary media attention to take us to the next level. Our goal is simple: We want the film to be seen. We believe in the power of stories and know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that audiences will be moved and inspired by Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged. We feel that the film has the potential to save lives.”

Ms. Smith-Harris said the goal of the film is to “challenge preconceived notions of beauty and engender greater empathy for burn survivors. … They deserve to have a voice – and a face – in the public consciousness. Burn survivors should be defined by their character and accomplishments and not by their scars. They deserve our admiration and respect.”

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 Army 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 was the winner of last season’s Dancing With the Stars show.

“I’ve been in touch with both J.R. and his publicist,” said Ms. Smith-Harris. “J.R., along with the other burn survivors featured in the film, are all proud to be associated with Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged and the film’s message of hope.”

Ms. Smith-Harris’s husband, Bill Harris, is the executive producer of the film.

“We would love to get a distributor for Trial by Fire: Lives Re-Forged who would be committed to a theatrical release as well as getting a national television broadcast deal,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “Of course, every filmmaker fantasizes about being nominated for an Oscar and we’d be thrilled if that should come to pass, but right now, we’re just grateful to have such a great opportunity and very focused on having a successful DocuWeeks run. We’re a small company, so we’re doing everything ourselves – publicity, marketing and promotion, social media, and yes, even song-writing.”

Song-writing

To help raise funds for her nonprofit documentary, Ms. Smith-Harris recently wrote a “name-brand song to the end the film, Hope Lies Inside,” collaborating with musician and composer Colin Kassekert.

“We never met face-to-face, but it wasn’t a hindrance to crafting a terrific song,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “We communicated through WAV files, emails and phone calls, and the result speaks for itself. Hope Lies Inside, recorded in Nashville, is both memorable and meaningful. And now it’s available on iTunes. For under a dollar you can buy a great song, help out an important cause, and make a difference in the world. … And we’re encouraging radio stations across the country to introduce the song to the public. We would love for a high-profile star, music artist or radio personality to get behind the song and give it some airplay.”

So far, the song has been received “really well and, surprisingly, resonates with a very wide age range,” Ms. Smith-Harris said.

She is hoping the profits from the song will help with fund raising. “Because the Independent Documentary Association (IDA) who runs DocuWeeks is a nonprofit organization, participating films have to come up with funds to participate,” she said. “In our case it will be around $25,000, because a $17,000 fee goes to theater rental and some promotion, and the additional $8,000 goes to creating a theatrical print, marketing and promotion. … For larger production companies like HBO, this kind of money is nothing, but for a two-person production company based out of a home in Wilton, it’s a stretch. … We’ve worked tirelessly on this film for over two years but have exhausted all our resources.”

The film was made with a lot of help from the local community. “A few months ago I reached out to Eliza Shanley of Women@Work, a Wilton business, and asked for her help,” Ms. Smith-Harris said. “I knew the organization attracted highly competent women who were looking for new career opportunities. I asked if anyone was interested in working with us on the film in a volunteer capacity – they’d get something fresh to put on their résumé and we’d benefit from having a team able to help us promote the film. I am now working with three terrific women: Shelly Osterberg of Wilton, Mary Stewart of Westport and Goia Ingram of Ridgefield. They have been invaluable.”

Several interns and volunteers have also helped with the film, including Wilton High School graduates Charlotte Stack, Kelsey Harkness and Brett Bassock.

Despite the challenges, the film has been a labor of love, according to Ms. Smith-Harris. “I have loved every minute of making this film,” she said. “On a personal level, it has been inspirational and taught me to put everything into perspective. When I experience a disappointment or am having a rough day, I no longer give in to feeling sorry for myself. I think – really think – about the people I have met have during the course of production. I reflect on what they survived and went through – and continue to go through – in their recoveries. They are truly heroic in my estimation. Suddenly any ‘problem’ I have completely evaporates and I redouble my efforts to get this film seen by as many people as possible.”