Local film festival covers the globe

In the next week and a half you can peek inside the world of a ballet troupe composed of Russian refugees. You can experience love and humor on the French Riviera. You can follow the world?s fastest motorcycle through the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, or get lost in the imaginary world of a boy from Seoul. In short, over the next 11 days you can see flashes of the world at the 24th Three Rivers Film Festival.

The annual film festival is celebrating 100 years of movies in Pittsburgh, since the first U.S. nickelodeon opened in the city, according to the Festival?s website
(www.3rff.com). The films range from Alfred Hitchcock?s last silent film, Blackmail, to Why We Fight, an examination of U.S. military expansion from World War II to the present. Most films are recent productions from 2004 and 2005, but there are classics like 1976?s Harlan County, USA, an Oscar-winning documentary about a Kentucky coal-mining town.

Festival highlight: SQUONKumentary

Harlan County, USA isn?t the only documentary on the Festival circuit. SQUONKumentary is a film that is highly rooted in Pittsburgh. It traces the performance of Squonk Opera, a Pittsburgh-based musical troupe with a history of wild acts such as ?Night of the Living Dead: The Opera,? as the ?Squonkers? take on Broadway.

Squonk Opera had some of its first performances in Bloomfield, as the charming scenes with Stanley Frankowski, the owner of the Bloomfield Bridge Tavern, will teach you. (Frankowski passed away on October 19 of this year.) After touring extensively, the Squonkers were picked up off-Broadway and eventually scored a spot next to big-time acts like The Lion King. The documentary traces the production of Squonk?s on-Broadway show and their subsequent efforts to stay on Broadway after poor reviews.

Steve O?Hearn, Squonk Opera?s artistic director, described the downward spiral of Squonk on Broadway. ?It got rave reviews off-Broadway,? he said. Then ?we made the mistake of going on Broadway. The expectations of being on Broadway are very inappropriate for us.?

SQUONKumentary marks director Peggy Sutton?s first film, and perhaps the film?s strongest aspect is that Sutton let Squonk Opera come to life in her film. Because Sutton felt that playfulness was one of the key characteristics of Squonk, she tried to achieve that in her film.

?My goal as a first-time filmmaker,? she said, ?was that I wanted to give myself time to learn...? She added that Squonk Opera was the type of production that could give her a chance to do things that were ?a little bit lighter and a little bit more fun.?
The film is bittersweet, tracing the failed attempts of the musical troupe as they desperately try to get $100,000 worth of tickets sold so that they can stay on Broadway. But Sutton?s filming really grasps the spirit of the production. By the end, you want to rush out and see Squonk Opera perform (thankfully, though they did not remain on Broadway, the Squonkers have continued to tour for the five years since their Broadway debut). Squonk really gives off a feeling of sincere dedication to what is wild. Throughout SQUONKumentary you see them use headdresses, puppets, fog machines, and even a mechanical egg as production props. Beyond the wild props, there is the music. Of course the music is great when it accompanies the show but it is still magnificent on its own, as proved by a scene where the Squonkers promote their CD with a live musical performance over the air.

O?Hearn left his career in commercial design to attend Carnegie Mellon to study the arts. He was drawn to the theater because ?you have people?s focus for 90 minutes and every other light except the light you want on is off. And the amount of attention and focus that you can get in theater, as opposed to other art forms, is what moves me.? As for the 70 minutes during which the only light you?ll see is the light coming from SQUONKumentary, you will find yourself engaged in this troupe?s passion to keep performing. In short, it is hard not to fall for Squonk.