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Lost in language and ‘Little Rock’

Film: CalArts grad Mike Ott’s latest indie film garners international notice

Posted: September 25, 2010 6:20 p.m.
Updated: September 26, 2010 4:55 a.m.

A scene from “Little Rock.”

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Michael Ott was living every aspiring director’s dream, traveling to foreign countries and promoting his first film.

The California Institute of the Arts alumnus showed his first movie at film festivals across the world, though he often found himself at a loss for words when communicating with foreign speakers in countries like Chile and Portugal.

In Argentina, he met a girl. She didn’t speak any English. He didn’t speak any Spanish. But body language fed enough communication to foster a romance.

Eventually, Ott had to return to the U.S. So he called his lover to say farewell. Stripped of his body language, Ott found himself in a helpless position.

“It was the most awkward good-bye,” he said. “It  was frustrating not being able to say something simple like, ‘I had a nice time meeting you.’”

It was similar to the feeling he had while dining with a group of Chileans speaking Spanish.

“Everyone is talking a million miles per minute, and I have no idea what anyone is saying,” he said.

It’s intimidating, he said.

A trip of “lost in language” experiences had Ott scribbling down notes on a 15-hour flight home as he contemplated his next film.

And that’s how “Little Rock” — Ott’s second and most recent film — was born. The movie’s main character, a Japanese visitor to America, finds herself in an unfamiliar yet intriguing setting as she and her brother end up stranded in Littlerock, Calif. 

‘Little Rock’
Now, two years after the initial test shoot, Ott and his crew have been pleasantly surprised at the attention the film has received.

“Little Rock” won the Best Screenplay and youth jury Best Feature Film at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
The film has also recently been accepted into 15 other international film festivals in the United States, Canada, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Egypt, Italy, Greece and Norway.

“It seems like every other day we’re getting into another festival in the world,” said Frederick Thornton, 23, who owes his first producer credit to this movie.

Other side of America
The movie’s main character is a young Japanese woman named Atsuko Sakamoto. During a sight-seeing tour in California, the rental car she and her brother are driving breaks down in the high-desert town of Littlerock.

For a few days, Atsuko and her brother, Rintaro, find themselves stranded in this nothing-much of a town. Meanwhile, they meet and begin to interact with the locals at parties.

Atsuko begins to form a relationship with the people she calls “her friends,” though none of them can understand the other’s language. Atsuko only speaks Japanese. Her brother speaks little English.

“I think when you meet someone, even if you don’t speak the same language, you can get a sense of someone’s character,” Ott said.

New friends
A well-meaning local named Cory befriends Atsuko and her brother. Corey is a poor kid in a desert without many options, Ott said.

“He’s kind of trapped in this town,” he said.

But he is loyal to Atsuko, though she doesn’t always understand him or appreciate him.

As Rintaro decides to leave Littlerock, Atsuko chooses to stay with Cory, finding excitement in the friendships she’s developed — and a romance with one of the other locals.

Although Atsuko and her romantic interest don’t understand each other, they find ways to communicate with body language.

But as Atsuko spends more time in Littlerock, she begins to see another side of the America.

“I feel Atsuko falls in love with America and is not as critical as she should be,” Ott said.

Life in “Little Rock” goes a bit deeper than the drinking and parties. There are hidden debts, hidden relationships and tense race relationships. But in a way, the only escape for Cory and the other locals are the parties.

“Cory drinks with kids, he has nowhere to go and nothing to do,” Ott said. “They’re stuck. This is just their life.”

Eventually, Rintaro comes back for Atsuko and the two travel to Manzanar, the site of one of 10 camps where thousands of Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

“Toward the end, she saw this other side of America ...” Ott said.

A final phone conversation leaves those who watch the movie with some sense of what Ott experienced as he attempted to tell his Argentinian interest good-bye.

Filming
For his first film, Ott had a fully scripted screenplay laid out before even switching on a camera. But when all was said and done, he discovered that the parts he liked the most were the unscripted scenes.

So for this film, Ott and a few friends drove up to Littlerock with a camera and a bare-bones outline for a test shoot.

Ott had passed through Littlerock before. A town with less than 13,000 residents located in the Antelope Valley, its dusty landscapes are split by a seemingly endless road-to-nowhere. The town’s feel lent itself to Ott’s vision of an odd world.

“I always thought when I went there, how weird it seemed,” he said. “It seems like just a fictitious town.”

It’s not too far from the big city of Los Angeles, “but it might as well be in Alabama,” Ott said. “There’s nothing there.”

Ott’s lead actress, Atsuko Okatsuka, had never acted before. Ott’s producer, Frederick Thornton, had also never produced a feature film before. But after one test shoot, Ott knew he had a movie in the making with the right combination of setting and talent.

Foreign perspective
Ott hopes he can challenge his viewers to see the world from a foreigner’s perspective and “how bizarre things are that people see as normal in America.”

“It’s questioning what it means to be American in a way,” he said. “And how much does language have to do with identifying being seen as an American?”

But he is not trying to shove anything down anyone’s throat, he said. His point was to portray life as it is, he said.

In response to an angry critic in San Franscisco, Ott said that he was not trying to be critical of America.

“I’m not saying it’s good or bad,” he said. “I’m just saying this is how it is.”

But despite the disturbed critic, Ott has received positive reviews and surprising acceptance among film festivals. The film’s recognition has reached beyond that of his first film.

“I’m super proud of it,” Ott said. “From what my idea was, to how it turned out has surpassed my wildest dreams.”

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