In 2002, on the property of a crematorium in north-western Georgia, some 300 bodies were found lying on the ground, stacked in barns, and half buried in various states of decomposition. Though no official explanation has ever been given as to why – perhaps it had to do with the crematorium’s inoperability – the man who ran the cremation business had for a while been neglecting his duties, delivering urns filled with nonspecific ashes or, even worse, dirt and rocks to mourners instead of their loved ones’ remains.
The 2011 independently produced and distributed film Sahkanaga casts these historical events in a fictional narrative, placing a teenaged boy (and his friends and family) at the center of the story as the one who first finds the bodies laid out haphazardly in the woods. The film follows him and the rest of the community as they come to grips with what the boy has discovered.
Sahkanaga‘s writer/director, John Henry Summerour, is a native of the area where the real tragedy occurred. His father is a Methodist minister who had officiated the memorial services for many of the discovered deceased. He cast the film with local, non-professional actors, many of whom had relatives found in the forest, and crewed the film with students from local colleges.
Summerour’s goal was not simply to make a film. He conceived of the film as a form of outreach. He wanted to provide the community with a means of catharsis by allowing them to wrestle with their experience and their lingering questions and emotions within the safe space of a fictional narrative and assumed identities.
This lends the film a remarkable sense of authenticity. The setting, story, and rhythm of the film as well as the responses of the various characters to the tragedy ring remarkably true. There are moments that feel almost too personal, as if we’ve wandered into a closed memorial service for a person we did now know.
However, Sahkanaga is also painfully relatable, because the film is drenched in death, an experience common to us all. Every community member seems to have an urn on their mantle. The boy is haunted by what he discovered. Dead pets play a part in the story. Even the film’s one scene of sexual intimacy – an act of youthful vitality and life-creation – swirls around a conversation about death and why people care so much about it.
Unsurprisingly given the story’s cultural setting and the writer/director’s personal history, Christian faith plays a huge role in the film. To Sahkanaga‘s credit, it doles out none of the normal Christian platitudes about death and the ever-after. Instead, the film questions why we grieve so if as Christians we truly believe in eternal life and resurrection. If the dead are really better off, changed only into glory, why do we memorialize lost loved ones and care so much about how their bodies are treated? My favorite answer the film gives (among many) is that we memorialize the dead for the sake of the living who are forced to reckon with the loss.
For all these reasons, I recommend Sahkanaga to you highly. It is an exemplary film both in its production method and in its final product. Our cinemas are glutted with movies that cost too much money to make and so must make lots of money to be considered successful. Sahkanaga shows us that success can be measured very differently.
Success can be measured by the positive impact a film has on the community who makes it. It can measured by the skill displayed by a filmmaker like John Henry Summerour, a filmmaker capable of making profound and nuanced art with limited means, a filmmaker who is able to draw profound and nuanced performances out of non-professional actors. In its images, its story, its performances, its purpose, and its theme, Sahkanaga is as beautiful a film as I have seen in a very long time.