Tri-State Crematory story fictionalized in new film

Authored By mary.barnett

Local premiere of “Sahkanaga”
When: Oct. 12-18
Where: Carmike Majestic 12 Theater
How much: Check local listings
For more information: Click here

John Henry Summerour was a college student in New York City in 2002, far from his boyhood home of Chickamauga, Ga., when his family and childhood friends learned their deceased loved ones’ bodies were lying in the Northwest Georgia woods near the town of Noble.

Ten years ago this year, the Tri-State Crematory story unraveled like a Hollywood movie. The uncremated remains of more than 300 bodies were found around the property, and crematory operator, Brent Marsh, was eventually indicted by a grand jury on 787 felony charges.

According to news reports, the exact number of families affected is still unknown, but attorneys connected to the original lawsuit have estimated the number could be as high as 2,000.

Summerour, a budding filmmaker, knew some of those families whose “loved ones were dumped in the woods.” Others, he said, had funerals led by his father, a Methodist minister.

As the stranger-than-fiction headlines traveled around the world, Summerour said he knew it would create more pain and shame if the dramatic and unbelievable tale was turned into an over-the-top Hollywood horror flick.

So, he decided if anyone was going to attempt to make a film based on the tragedy, it would be him.

“I just thought, I feel like I understand the complexity of the area and that situation,” Summerour said.

Summerour’s “Sahkanaga” (pronounced sock-uh-nogga) is based on true events but approached from the perspective of a misunderstood and alienated teenager who discovers the discarded bodies and his own family’s ties to the disturbing events as they unfold.

He said he chose the vantage point of a loner teen who struggles with the torment of secrets and the difficulties of forgiveness as a metaphor to represent a confused and scared tight-knit rural town.

“It is sort of a coming-of-age for an entire community, where everyone loses their innocence,” he said.

The movie, which co-premiered in Boston and Atlanta in 2011, has been touring the festival circuit to rave reviews and has won several awards, including the audience award for best narrative feature at the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival, the jury award for best narrative feature at the 2012 San Francisco Independent Film Festival, and the jury award for best narrative feature at the 2011 Rome International Film Festival.

It makes its Chattanooga premiere with a weeklong run at the Majestic Theater downtown from Oct. 12 through 18.

In a review in Variety, the film is described as a “queasily poetic mix of religion, sex and morbidity.”

“Writer-helmer John Henry Summerour’s debut feature is a richly atmospheric drama that, despite its grisly hook, is ultimately far less interested in its tale’s suspense/horror aspects than in how such a public shock affects and reveals the character of local citizenry,” Dennis Harvey wrote in February.

Although the film may be Summerour’s calling card as a first-time filmmaker, the project is also an act of community outreach for Summerour, who said he wanted to give ownership of the story back to the community by using real people and real locations. 

Scenes were shot in Chickamauga, Lula Lake and the Gordon Lee Mansion. It is also the first narrative feature to be granted access to film at the Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as the body farm, at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

Untrained and nonprofessional actors from the community were cast in key and supportive roles, and many had direct connections to the tragedy. Legally, Summerour had to make sure his film was not a true life story but simply a fiction based on actual events. As a result, the “safety net of fiction” was also provided for the cast members who had firsthand experience with the story’s painful truth.