What a lovely film to open my Atlanta Film Festival. SAHKANAGA has all the elements that remind me why I love indie filmmaking so much. It is made with real affection for the story and characters. It is also devoid of the overly cynical, self-conscious filmmaking style that shows up too often on the festival circuit. You can see the director has really poured his heart into every aspect of this film.
The story follows the residents of a small town in rural Georgia and how they are shaken by the aftermath of an awful scandal. It is inspired by a true story that happened in 2002, where the owner of a crematorium was found to be dumping bodies in the woods instead of cremating them. Director John Henry Summerour takes the elements of that story and focuses it on a teenage boy who struggles with what to do in light of a horrific discovery.
The best thing about the film is how it really captures the tone and essence of rural small town life. The town really comes alive and you feel transported there. It helps that the director has assembled a fine cast of very natural actors. There is no overacting to be found here. The events unfold naturally and at no point does Summerour try to beat the audience over the head. It is an impressively confident achievement and a terrific way to start the festival.
John Henry Summerour’s SAHKANAGA is an already great film that is made even better by the promise it shows from all of those involved in making it. Inspired by a true story, it tells the tale of a teenager in rural Georgia who stumbles upon a mass of bodies behind a crematorium in the woods. He must spend the rest of the film figuring out what, if anything, he should do with this secret, and it slowly begins to eat away at his relationships with his friends, family, and the young girl he finds himself falling in love with. This is a film that understands the feel of the South. Each shot is coated by a sweaty, sticky romanticism, and the actors (all of them amateurs) match the scenery with performances worthy of veterans. Above all though, the film works because it is masterful at knowing when and how to change gears. At one moment it is wrenching, and in the next it becomes remarkably quiet and tender. Quite an accomplishment for Summerour’s first feature.
What would you do if you stumbled upon a terrible secret that could destroy your family’s business, ruin your chances with the girl you’re beginning to fall for, and completely upend the small community in which you grew up? When Paul, a teenager in a tiny rural town in Georgia, makes a gruesome discovery in the woods one summer, he finds himself contending with monumental questions that would test someone twice his age. But Paul is still figuring a lot of things out—about trust, friendship, forgiveness, and even grief—and no matter what, his decisions are bound to hurt someone.
Based on actual events, SAHKANAGA is an unusual coming-of-age story with a number of disturbing mysteries and uncomfortable confrontations at its core. The film’s lush cinematography captures the fecund beauty of Appalachia, which looms over the ordinary rituals of its unsuspecting residents as a constant reminder of the vast unknown haunting even the most apparently innocent and simple of places.
Inspired by the 2002 Tri-State Crematory scandal in the Appalachian foothills of northwest Georgia, where over 300 bodies were discovered strewn about the property in various stages of decay, SAHKANAGA imagines the event from a teenager who stumbles upon the first body.
The filmmaker, John Henry Summerour, developed the script at the Screenwriters Colony on Nantucket, grew up only miles away from the crematory, and developed the story based on real experiences. The film’s cast is made up of locals, and shot on Super16. The results in the trailer look haunting.
Feature written by John Henry Summerour about participating in the IFP Narrative Labs.
SAHKANAGA is featured in Eric Lavallee’s Top 50 Sundance Predictions.
SAHKANAGA is featured in Indiewire’s “In the Works” section by Brian Brooks.
All features by Josh O’Bryant