It was more like a homecoming than a movie premiere.
Most everyone in the audience at the Carmike Majestic 12 in Chattanooga was from Walker County, nestled in the mountains of northwest Georgia about 20 miles away. Some were there to see hometown boy John Henry Summerour’s directorial debut; others, to see themselves – “Sahkanaga,” Cherokee for “blue hills of God,” was filmed on location and employed a cast of locals, many of whom had never acted before.
It had all the makings of a feel-good story, except that “Sahkanaga” is anything but – at least on the surface. The movie, a hit on the film festival circuit, recalls a nightmare that still haunts Walker County 10 years after it began.
It’s a story that drama teacher Sharon Huey, who plays Lovey, widow of the town’s sheriff, didn’t want her former student at Walker County High School to tell.
“I didn’t think anyone would want to re-live this,” Huey said. “I know I didn’t.”
Huey’s mother was one of 334 bodies recovered from the grounds of the Tri-State Crematory in February 2002. Ray Brent Marsh, who assumed the family business after his father had fallen ill, hid the rotting corpses in the woods, dumped them in tanks and stacked them in vaults. Some were found stuffed in a Hearse.
Marsh was convicted on 787 felony charges and started serving a 12-year prison sentence in 2004.
“Some of the lines I say in the movie were things that I had said 10 years earlier,” Huey said. Her mother’s remains had dissolved into a “mush of DNA,” mixed with other corpses, she said.
Memories like that don’t fade.
So when Summerour told her of his plans to write a coming-of-age story set against the crematory scandal, she wrote him back “something really nasty.”
“A lot of people are still dealing with the hurt and shame that came out of this,” Huey said.
Summerour had watched the drama from afar, having left Chickamauga, a town of about 2,000, for New York University to pursue an acting career. But there was no escaping the headlines – or, he said, the guilt by association.
“What did this say about my hometown?” said the 35-year-old director. “At first I was very angry. But the more I dug into it, the more I saw this as a story of hope and forgiveness.”
“Sahkanaga” also delves into the unresolved feelings generated by the crematory scandal. Did anyone besides Marsh know? How could Marsh, a former college football player, well-known and well-liked within this close-knit community, do something so unspeakable?
“To those of you who may have come here today looking for answers, I cannot give you,” Marsh said when he pleaded guilty in 2004.
Summerour’s script doesn’t manufacture resolution.
“We don’t know why it happened,” he said. “That’s real life. There aren’t always answers.”
Huey worried how her friends and neighbors would handle the ambiguity. Her initial misgivings about the film were assuaged by Summerour’s quiet insistence that his little movie – made in 21 days for $100,000 – would heal, not divide.
She ended up being the first actor cast in “Sahkanaga,” serving as her former pupil’s messenger in one of the film’s pivotal scenes.
“I want to forgive and I want to have peace, but it’s going to be a long road,” Lovey tells the wife of a local funeral director implicated in the crematory cover-up.
It’s been a long road for Huey as well.
“I held a lot of ill will but I had to let to go,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to get over it if I didn’t.”
Others have struggled to move on.
Gerald Cook knew Ray Brent Marsh’s secret before anyone else. Eleven years ago, Cook, a driver for Blassman Oil Co., reported seeing decomposing bodies while making a delivery to the crematory. He told his boss, who informed Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson. It would be another 10 months before anyone took his claims seriously.
“There was such pain in his face,” said Summerour, who met Cook at the Chattanooga premiere. He saw himself in Paul, the teenage protagonist in “Sahkanaga” who blows the whistle on the crematory with unforeseen consequences.
“He said, ‘That was me! I was the child holding onto the secret’,” said the fledgling director. “No one believed him. They laughed at him. It drove him crazy.”
Summerour hopes the film provides some solace for Cook.
“I made this movie for Walker County,” Summerour said. “I was prepared for blowback, and there was some of that. The people who don’t want to re-live it won’t see it. But my ultimate goal was to bring this movie home, to give ownership of this story back to the community.”
There’s great beauty amid the grisly details inherent to the story. Summerour shot the movie on 16mm film, vividly capturing the bucolic grandeur of his mountain home.
For one woman, the contradictions were too much to handle.
She wrote Summerour, telling she was hurt by the movie. Summerour wrote her back, wanting to know why.
“Your film is so beautiful,” she responded. “And there was nothing beautiful about this story.”
It’s a story still unfolding.
Marsh will be out of prison soon, no later than June 2016, according to the Department of Corrections. His parents still live in the community and some wonder if Marsh will join them upon his release.
Huey has tried to make sense of his callous indifference.
“I know there are a lot of people who say he didn’t want to be the crematory operator,” she said. “He took over the business when his father got sick and it was too much for him to handle.”
Chattanooga firefighter Charles Patterson plays Chris, the character modeled after Marsh, with little menace, though clearly haunted by a secret.
“I don’t think he was a monster,” Patterson said. “He was someone who got caught up in something then didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Marsh served as a reminder that “you never really know what someone is capable of. Brent was a well-respected person. No one would’ve expected this from him.”
Summerour ponders the story’s final chapter. His faith in Walker County is such that he thinks Marsh could return there to live.
“It’ll be fascinating to see how he starts his life over again,” he said. “How do you recover from this?”
Not that he’s plotting any sequels.
“No movie can cover all the complexities of this case,” Summerour said. “There are more stories to tell, but I’ll leave that to someone else.”