You may be familiar with this story. It’s an inspirational three-parter, with more to come.
Chapter 1: In June 2007, Carmen Tarleton’s estranged husband breaks into her home in Theteford, Vermont, and attacks her with a baseball bat and industrial strength lye. The burns cover 80% of her body. Blinded and horribly disfigured, her experiences—the medically induced coma, the 55+ surgeries, multiple reconstructive operations, the painful recovery—and her defiant will to live are collected in her book, “Overcome: Burned, Blinded, and Blessed.” It wins the bronze medal (inspirational/spiritual category) at the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards. She forgives her husband, now serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Chapter 2, being the longer one in “Beyond Recognition: The Incredible Story of a Face Transplant” (showing in AFI DOCS’ “Shorts Program: Face the Music”): Fast forward to recollections dating from late 2011. The action alternates between Carmen, talking confidently at home about the facial transplant she has already received, and Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, the director of Plastic Surgery Transplantation at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, remembering the timeline toward his team’s 15-hour operation on Carmen, which occurred in February 2013. This trailblazing surgery—first performed on a Texas man in 2011—was a major news story at the time, and Carmen has carried her story forward, with the book as well as widespread media coverage while her wounds, both emotional and physical, continue to heal, and while her world (she has two daughters) grows accustomed to her new face.
Chapter 3: In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Marinda Snow Righter, the grown, orphaned daughter of Cheryl Denelli-Righter, sits confidently in a large soft chair smothered with soothing fabric. She sports a sunflower pinned to her blouse. Wind chimes tinkle nearby. She’s focused, about her past (dad died from a drunk driver when she was two) and then about her mom, Carmen’s donor. We get her story.
As producer-cameraman Stephen Greenwood and director-editor-cameraman Sam Thonis intertwine the last two chapters, they let the subjects speak for themselves. And eventually meet. No special effects or sci-fi tricks borrowed from John Woo’s “Face/Off,” just a subtle score (taken from the works of Nils Frahm) overlaying their straightforward approach.
The current chapter (I suspect there are many more to be written) in “Beyond Recognition” adds a new character, Sheldon Stein, a musician teaching Carmen the piano. He’s her new boyfriend, too. Eventually Carmen will be able to blink, to smile, to kiss. Until then, she’s as happy as a (singing) clam. And so are we.