Director/Writer/Producer Ken Ochiai Shares His Excitement for the Festival!  

Ken Ochiai (left), Director of Frog in the Well

The first time I heard about Heartland Film Festival was when my friend, Joel Nassan, won a Heartland Film Festival Award a few years ago.  Not only did he offer much praise for the festival, but many of the people he met helped him in the next stages of his career.  He said it was the best film festival that he has been to and suggested I submit a film when I got a chance.

Two years later, I finished my AFI thesis film, Half Kenneth: a story of half-Japanese, half-Caucasian brothers who escape from a Japanese American Internment camp during WWII to find their Caucasian mother in town.  When I heard that the film was selected for the Festival, I jumped with excitement.  However, I wasn’t able to attend the Festival due to the shooting schedule of my next film.  So I decided to keep submitting my films to the Festival until I could attend.

My next film, Frog In The Well, was based on my life experience.

Though I was born and raised in Japan, it wasn’t until a short time ago that I realized the importance of my heritage.  Seven years ago, I came to the U.S. with a dream of becoming an international film director like Akira Kurosawa.  I was like a pretentious frog in a shallow well, knowing nothing of the great ocean.

When I first arrived in the States, I tried to speak and think in English and make friends with Americans; I wanted to be an American.  However, when my American friends asked me about Japanese culture and history, I realized that I didn’t know very much about it.  My embarrassment ignited an interest in learning more about my heritage.  Strangely it took me leaving my home country to understand that where I am plays a large role in my own character and decisions.

Since then, every time I went back to Tokyo for the holidays, I took a trip to the countryside of Japan that I had never been to.  I took photos and wrote ideas on my notepad. After a couple of notepads, Justin Miller, my classmate from USC, and I wrote a feature film script, Summer 47: a film about four Californian college students on a road trip through all 47 Japanese prefectures over the course of a summer.

This short film is based on one of the four main characters in the feature script combined with my personal experience and family story.

Justin and I went on a three-week journey through Japan from the northernmost city to the southernmost city, taking 16,000 photos and 8 hours of footage on Canon Mark II 5D along the way.  Our goal was to capture and condense the essence of Japan into a 15-minute short film and to explore a young man’s journey of self, heritage, and sense of belonging.

As I was walking down the middle of a Tokyo intersection, I got a call from Mr. Ray Mills, the festival programmer and was told that my film won the Heartland Film Festival Award. I jumped even higher than last year.

I’m very much looking forward to attending the Festival this year and hope this film may serve as a catalyst to spark it’s viewers interests in visiting the fascinating country of Japan.

Ken Ochiai
Director/Writer/Producer of Frog in the Well