In 2002, over 300 bodies were discovered on the property of the Tri-State Crematory in the Appalachian foothills of northwest Georgia, thrusting an unassuming, tight-knit community into the international spotlight. SAHKANAGA (meaning “Great Blue Hills of God” in Cherokee, pronounced “sock-uh-nogga”) imagines this event from the perspective of Paul, a teenager who stumbles upon the first body. Matters are further complicated by his father’s ownership of the local funeral home and the arrival of Lyla, a beautiful stranger whose recently deceased grandfather is the first corpse that Paul finds. Filmed in Walker County, GA, with a cast of local, non-professional actors (many of whom had a direct connection to the real-life scandal), the tension mounts as Paul is entangled in his own secrets, and the entire community faces the complexities of forgiveness in the wake of an unfathomable tragedy.
Note from the Director
I grew up only a few miles from this crematory in Walker County, GA. My father, a Methodist minister, presided over funerals for some of those cast aside in the woods. I decided to return home and develop the movie as a community outreach endeavor.
After conducting a series of interviews, I developed the script at the Screenwriters Colony on Nantucket, and then we shot a short excerpt (CHICKAMAUGA, 2008) that served as a litmus test for the feature.
Everyone you see in the film is from the area. None of them had previously acted in front of a camera. Some of them had loved ones sent to the crematory, and many knew the real-life victims and perpetrators. We also worked with students from the burgeoning film programs at Chattanooga State Community College and Southern Adventist University, as well as several uninitiated locals who were interested in gaining first-hand knowledge of how films are put together.
We all came to the project with varying degrees of comfort and confidence, but I knew it was imperative to have the people of the community tell their story (on both sides of the camera) for verisimilitude, ownership and catharsis.
I especially wanted to provide for the youth of the area an opportunity to participate in a professional feature film, something I could only dream of as a child growing up in this quiet, isolated place.
We shot the feature on Super16mm for 21 days, maintaining the core artistic collaborators from the short, and were even granted access to film actual human decomposition at the Forensic Anthropology Center (also known as the Body Farm) at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.
I want the film to reflect the beauty, mystery and subtle terror that pervade Southern culture, specifically as experienced by its teenagers. SAHKANAGA is about love and death, consequence and accountability, and ultimately, forgiveness. In real life, the crematory operator went to jail in silence, taking any possible explanations with him. This silence is a significant part of the tragedy, the shame and embarrassment that many people still struggle with, and the hurt that persists ten years later. I hope the film is a fair and compelling interpretation of something that is essentially unknowable.
- John Henry Summerour, NYC, 2012