"Sahkanaga" — up for Best Narrative Feature honors at this weekend's Secret City Film Festival — had to overcome some unprecedented local hurdles on its way to the screen.
Among the toughest was getting permission to briefly film at the University of Tennessee's Body Farm. Literally the groundwork for forensic investigations, the Body Farm rarely allows cameras on its property. When lenses are allowed, it's for educational purposes only.
Filmmaker John Henry Summerour, the north Georgia native who wrote, directed and produced the drama about a scandal rocking a small Southern town's crematorium, had connections at the university to plead his case.
He was surprised he was able to obtain approval to be there for three hours to shoot.
"The public relations people were told to shut (the request) down," Summerour said during a phone interview to talk of the movie and the film festival, set for Friday through Sunday.
"It was the biggest honor. I wanted to convince them that this was not a horror film. I really wanted true decomposition in the film."
"Sahkanaga" is a fictional drama playing off of real life events at a crematorium in Walker County, Ga. In 2002, authorities learned hundreds of bodies sent there to be cremated were actually discarded and tossed aside. Ashes sent to families weren't their loved ones at all.
The owner of the business is in prison now for failing to cremate the bodies. Reasons why the cremations never happened vary. The owner has said his equipment wasn't working and could not carry out the tasks.
The story of "Sahkanaga" is about how the revelation impacted the town around the crematorium. The plot and characters are fictitious, however.
"This film is really about reality," said Summerour. "I thought it was important to have real decomposition in the film, to show people this (movie) is not some over-the-top episode of 'CSI.'"
"Sahkanaga" also had an image problem that haunted it. Before even seeing the film, residents of Noble, Ga., where the scandal took place, and surrounding communities, mistakenly assumed the movie was a thriller or a horror picture.
A few also thought "Sahkanaga" might champion or sensationalize the crematorium's owner, who is actually a minor character in the story and appears in only a few scenes, Summerour said.
"People don't think. They don't read. They assume this is some movie made by an outsider who doesn't know anything about their community," Summerour said. "After every screening of this movie, I'll have people say, 'I totally did not expect that.'"
Maryville native Paul Damian Hogan worked on "Sahkanaga" as a musical composer.
"Sahkanaga" will screen at 3 p.m. Sunday at Regal Cinemas Downtown West movie theater.
Secret City Film Festival
What: This year’s Secret City Film Festival will screen 55 films from across the country.
When: Today through Sunday
Hours: Box office opens at 11 a.m. each day
Friday films times: noon-10 p.m.
Saturday film times: 9:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Sunday film times: noon-7:30 p.m.; awards presentation begins at 8 p.m.
Where: Regal Cinemas Downtown West 8
Admission: Full festival pass, $40; film block tickets, $10
More info: www.secretcityfilmfest.com or call 865-742-8783.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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