“Sahkanaga,” a Cherokee word for the “Great Blue Hills of God,” is an 80-minute movie by Chickamauga native John Henry Summerour.
It is his first feature-length movie and was filmed in 21 days during 2009 on locations in Walker County.
“It has been something that has exceeded my expectations,” Summerour said. “And to travel with it and show it all around the world has just been icing on the cake. Coming back home to the tri-state area and showing it in Chattanooga, it’s really for me personally the climax of the entire journey.”
The film features an entirely local cast and originally premiered in Boston in April 2011.
“Some of them (cast members) had never been in front of a camera, so it was really intimidating for them to suddenly be thrust into this movie situation,” Summerour said. “Not only were they learning how to act in front of the camera, they were also re-enacting fictional versions of a real-life event that was traumatic for some of them.”
The fictionalized backdrop for the film originates from the events of Tri State Crematory tragedy, as viewed through a child’s perspective.
In the real-life tragedy, remains from more than 300 uncremated bodies were discovered in 2002 on the Tri-State Crematory property in Rock Spring in Walker County. The crematory’s operator, Ray Brent Marsh, is now serving time in prison.
The film “explores the tragedy as a metaphor” for the ability to heal and remain hopeful after unimaginable tragedy.
“While it starts off with something quite grim, by the end of the movie it really has a message of moving forward, forgiveness and how we heal this community,” Summerour said. “I think we were able to make something that is proof of the foundation of small Southern towns and what makes them so unique and special.”
The film has been shown at 17 film festivals around the U.S and even in Ireland, Brazil and Germany.
It will be shown at Carmike Cinemas Majestic 12 Theater in Chattanooga from Oct.12-18. Summerour and the actors will hold question-and-answer segments with moviegoers after the showings on Oct.12 and Oct. 13. Also, there will be an informal cast gathering after the Oct. 12 opening-night premier.
Summerour took a few years to write the script during summer breaks from acting in New York during 2004-06.
In 2007, Summerour took the next step and filmed a short version of his concept.
Due to the aging of the younger leads in the film, he had to reshoot nearly all of the footage in 2009.
Hundreds of volunteers who helped make the film possible will be recognized during the movie’s closing credits.
Summerour’s drama teacher of four years at Ridgeland High School, Sharon Huey, plays the part of “Lovey,” a public access TV host and wife of the town’s sheriff.
“She cast me in my first play,” Summerour said. “We now joke that as an adult I finally got to turn the tables (by casting and directing) on her.”
Summerour and the film will return to New York for another one-week debut in November.
“Sahkanaga” has recently been contracted for digital distribution in 2013, which will be available on Hulu and iTunes, according to Summerour.
“The reviews have been really amazing and the audience response has been positive.” Summerour said. “It’s been exciting because I know how hard we have all worked on this.”
Summerour began another script last November in collaboration with 90-year-old Stewart Stern, who wrote “Rebel without a Cause” in 1955. The script is an adult drama that will also be set in the South.