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John Henry Summerour is one thorough mofo. i can say that with full confidence because when I complimented him for answering four of my questions so completely that it pushes 3,000 words, he responded by saying, “I’m a thorough mofo.”
In addition to be thorough—and a self-confessed mofo—Summerour is a talented director and writer with a strong connection to Chattanooga. His film, “SAHKANAGA,” opens at the Majestic 12 on Friday, Oct. 12.
The film, which was shot locally using local talent, is the coming-of-age story of a young man who discovers a grisly secret. It is based on the 2001 Tri State Crematory scandal in north Georgia in which more than over 300 bodies that were scheduled for cremation were buried, stored in a shed or unceremoniously dumped in the woods. No reasons were ever given by the man responsible. He simply hung his head and accepted his sentence.
“SAHKANAGA,” which means “Great Blue Hills of God” in Cherokee, follows Paul, the son of the director of the funeral home, as he initially discovers the bodies and focuses on the actions taken and the consequences of the scandal.
The film is understandably dark, as the events were as both embarrassing and macabre, a blemish on a small southern community that certainly wanted to be known for more than a casual disregard for the wishes of the dead. While based on true events, the subject matter is a staple of southern fiction. It fits in well with stories like William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or Flannery O’Conner’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” both examples of a gothic style that describes human depravity in a distinctly southern way.
“SAHKANAGA” does this on less grand scale, one that focuses more on forgiveness than the act itself. Summerour intended to explore what he calls the “beauty, mystery and subtle terror that pervade southern culture, specifically as experienced by teenagers,” through this film.
“There is something universal about the teenage experience,” he says. “Feeling misunderstood, isolated, angry, scared, powerless. But the experience of growing up in the American South is inextricably linked to our shared history—the treatment of Native Americans, slavery, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, the impact of the Bible Belt, I don’t think I fully realized how unique the environment is until I moved to New York and studied with kids from different parts of the country and the world. We’re taught to focus on our Christian values, our strong family bonds and the importance of community, but there’s a sense of shame regarding the darker aspects of our history.”
By this measure, the film is quite successful. It paints a picture of a community that struggles with the dark nature of the events, but is not overcome by it.
The use of local actors, many of whom had connections to the events on which the film is based, could have seriously damaged the overall message. Many indie films suffer from stilted or ham-fisted acting, simply because they are performed by amateurs. Even classic indie films such as “Clerks” have moments where the audience becomes suddenly aware that they are watching actors deliver lines.
“SAHKANAGA” manages this rather well. I was especially impressed with the performances of the younger actors. Summerour, in part, credits the advent of reality television with the quality of performances of the teenagers in the film.
What I enjoyed most about the film was its strong sense of place. Those of us who grew up in the South are aware of the pervasive and powerful role Christianity plays in almost every aspect of our culture. It is hardwired and inescapable, sometimes overpowering and suffocating. These themes of religion are weaved throughout the narrative, which lends to the authenticity of the film and ultimately creates a believable environment for the narrative to exist.
“I don’t think I’ll ever make a film that doesn’t explore spirituality to some degree,” says Summerour, who grew up the son of Methodist minister. “I also must say that my experience growing up in the church was very positive. During the times when I was bullied at school, or felt misunderstood and marginalized, the church was always a safe haven of acceptance and love for me. I wanted this to be true in the film as well. The church is a place of healing and acceptance in the film, without being simplistic.”
While this comes across in the film very well, my own experiences with being raised a Southern Baptist caused me to roll my eyes a bit. The church scenes are undoubtedly faithful to what happens there, but the empty symbolism remains empty. I would have liked a bit more self awareness when it comes to the absurdity inherent in faith-based comfort.
We need to encourage more local filmmakers to make films like this one, as we have so many more stories to tell. So head over to the Majestic 12 downtown on Friday, Oct. 12, to see what our people are capable of. You won’t be disappointed.