For retired high school drama teacher Sharon Huey, the question is no longer why the operator of the Tri-State Crematory failed to properly dispose of her mother’s body — one of 334 discovered in tiny Noble, Ga., a little more than 10 years ago.
Instead, she wonders “did anyone know” about the grisly tragedy before it made international headlines. That mystery figures prominently in the plot of “Sahkanaga,” written and directed by Huey’s former student, John Henry Summerour.
The feature film, which starts a one-week run in Chattanooga this Friday — about 20 miles from where authorities discovered the gruesome remains of bodies hidden in the woods, dumped in holes and stacked in vaults — has attracted considerable buzz, but when Huey was sent a draft of Summerour’s first film script she discouraged him from pursuing it further.
“I wrote him back something really nasty,” said Huey, a retired Walker County drama teacher. She had no interest in re-living the story that cast a dark shadow over this small northwest Georgia community.
But eventually, she was assured that Summerour’s intent was restorative, not sensational.
“A lot of people are still dealing with the hurt and shame that came out of this,” Huey said, referring to the actions of Tommy Ray Brent Marsh, who ran the crematory for his father.
Marsh, indicted on 787 felony charges, pleaded guilty in November 2004 and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. According to the Georgia Department of Corrections, the Long State Prison inmate is scheduled to be released no later than June 2016.
Marsh, who came from a respected family with deep ties in Walker County, has never offered an explanation for his actions, and Summerour said his film doesn’t speculate.
“We don’t know why it happened, and that’s real life, which isn’t as black and white as we make it seem,” said Summerour, who grew up in Chickamauga, a town of little more than 2,000 residents in Walker County. “There’s still a lot of unresolved feelings, a lot of people who are still struggling with what happened.”
“Sahkanaga,” a Cherokee word that can be translated as “Great Blue Hills of God,” tells the story from the perspective of a teenage boy who discovers a body in the woods. The movie was filmed on location in Walker County using local actors such as Huey, who plays Lovey, a TV talk show host whose husband’s body is among those not disposed of by the celluloid crematory.
“I wanted to give ownership of the story back to the community,” said Summerour, whose dad was a Methodist minister in Chickamauga. The 35-year-old director raised money and maxed out his credit cards to produce the movie, which he shot over 21 days at a cost of roughly $100,000.
It’s screened to considerable acclaim at festivals across the country but Friday’s showing at Chattanooga’s Carmike Majestic 12 has Huey feeling a bit anxious.
“I do have misgivings about it,”said Huey, who plans to bring some relatives who have yet to see the movie. “It’s going to be emotional for them. It’s going to remind people of things they may not want to remember.”
Summerour said he’s never experienced the blowback he initially anticipated over a film he says is about “hope and forgiveness.”
“My ultimate goal was to bring this movie home, and I’m very excited that’s happening,” he said.
“Sahkanaga” is expected to be available on iTunes and Netflix early next year, said Summerour.
View the trailer here.