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Community spirit

Terlton examines tragedy and triumph in rural Oklahoma

A still shot from Terlton


Editor’s note: Charles Elmore is a cinematographer and participated in the production of Terlton and American Heretics.

In 1985, just weeks before Independence Day, on a hot summer day in Pawnee County, the town of Terlton, Oklahoma, was devastated after a deadly explosion at a local fireworks manufacturing plant. 34 years later, filmmaker and Oklahoma native Sterlin Harjo examines a community fading in the margins, still dealing with the loss while keeping an optimistic eye to the future.

The film came out of frequent interactions between Harjo and Terlton native Bobby Dean Orcutt. One interaction in particular lead Orcutt to explain the history of his hometown and the tragic events of June 25, 1985, when a fluke explosion reduced the local fireworks factory to rubble. The factory employed many of Terlton’s residents. 

Orcutt and Harjo spent a day hanging around the community, and Harjo was hooked. “I like telling stories that I feel no one else would tell,” Harjo said. “If I didn’t tell this story, no one [would].” 

Harjo treats the subjects of Terlton with grace and humility. Growing up in Holdenville, Harjo feels a special kinship with stories from rural Oklahoma, depicting its inhabitants with respect and dignity. 

What Terlton strives to show is the tenacity of a community that pulls itself together, choosing to not be defined by tragedy. Years later, the residents opt to reclaim what was a defining part of their community, putting on an annual Fourth of July fireworks celebration. The annual spectacle, which residents of Terlton fundraiser entirely on their own, draws record crowds from all over. Harjo leans into that tenacious spirit. 

“I didn’t want to approach the story as a tragedy,” he said. Rather he “[I want] to show how the residents of Terlton celebrate, how happy they are, and how friendly they are.”

Read more about the Circle Cinema Film Festival. 

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