Following the release of the riveting “Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice
” on Netflix, Thai-American journalist and documentarian Pailin Wedel
quickly joined the ranks of Thailand’s top filmmakers. We got in touch with her to uncover what fuels her passion as a journalist, how she managed to gain access to the family in their time of grief, and the journey from premiering the film at indie festivals to landing on the world’s biggest streaming service.
Take us through your journey from journalist to filmmaker. When and why did the transition happen?
Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a complete transition. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I think you can be both a journalist and a documentary filmmaker, because both crafts rely on facts and reality. I was primarily a video journalist, so a lot of the skills are shared between the two paths. I just finished a film that is a reportage documentary for Al Jazeera where I’m on camera, reporting… It’s a 25-minute film about Thailand’s cannabis laws. And yeah, that’s journalism. Just because I’ve done a feature-length film that is more in the documentary tradition, it doesn’t mean I stop being a journalist.
How do you find stories to report on?
I tend to like stories that focus on trauma, faith, and identity. But, you know, the cannabis story [I just filmed for Al Jazeera] was fun. I thought it was really interesting that Thailand has this history with cannabis, but because of the US’ war on drugs, it was nearly eradicated. Now that cannabis is medically legalized, it’s really difficult to find anybody who knows how to grow it anymore... [B]efore that, I did stories about headhunters in Nagaland for National Geographic, and South Korea’s gender war. Since I’m half Thai and half American, I feel like I’m constantly looking for stories in the region that will connect to a wider audience.
What does video journalism grant you that print cannot?
When I was working in print at a newspaper, I was a stills photographer… The thing that I love about video journalism is that I get to actually talk and interview people for the camera. As a stills journalist, for print, you have to capture the whole story in one photo, or a few photos, if you’re lucky. [In] my career, I started just doing one photo, then 90-second news stories, and then I started doing four-minute feature stories, and then I did 30-minute Al Jazeera stories, and then Hope Frozen is 79 minutes… It’s almost like I naturally get frustrated with how little time I have to tell every story. It just keeps getting longer and longer.
Do you see video as the future of journalism?
No… nothing’s the future of journalism. Good journalism is the future of journalism. Good journalism and funding, to be exact. I come from a family of writers and academics, and I think, as long as the story is done really well, that’s the future, no matter the medium.
What were the most intense assignments you’ve had to do so far?
When I was starting out… I covered the red and yellow shirt protests. I remember being on the frontlines, with the Molotov cocktails being thrown and all. I remember being one of the women out there, and the men were, like, “What are you doing here?” I was also producing an investigative film for Al Jazeera, and I went to a Muslim school that was burned down while the students were still in it. That was probably one of the most heart-wrenching experiences I’ve had. People came up to me and said, “You know, people burn their [own] houses down.” Obviously, that’s not true, and it’s one of those moments where I’ve had to grasp whether humanity has the capacity to empathize with all people.
Why did you want to make Hope Frozen?
My husband, who’s American, saw this story going viral on Thai television, so he invited me to do a news story on the family. What was supposed to be a few minutes of conversation turned into a much more in-depth conversation about life, and how technology is redefining the meaning of death for them, and how they deeply care for and love their daughter. That just really touched me on both the emotional and intellectual level. I had so many questions I wanted to ask, so they spent the next two and a half years trying to answer them.
Did you ever think your work would win so many awards and be available on Netflix?
Everything has been completely unexpected. It was incredibly difficult to fund this film. I spent two years applying to 14 different funding bodies, pitched seven times to a live audience. I didn’t get anything until one of my last pitches. We got a large fund from England, and then I won a second pitch, but with a smaller amount. So with that, I was about to pitch a new production and editing. So then, we edited the first cut, and sent it to some festivals, and we were rejected by all of them. But we did get a lot of feedback from them, so we incorporated that feedback into the second cut, and that’s the cut that got a lot into these festivals. We were able to premiere it at Hot Docs, which is North America’s largest documentary film festival.
The festival only paid for three days of hotel [stays], so the whole team was planning to leave before the award ceremony. But then I got an email that said “Hey, I think you might wanna stay.” I thought, “Ooh, we might’ve won something,” like one of the smaller prizes, like Best New Director. So we sat at the award ceremony, and they called out award after award, and they called out Best New Director, and it wasn’t us. So I thought that they sent the email to the wrong person. And of course, the biggest award is the last one announced during the night. I was thinking, “Oh my god, what happened here?” But then they called our name, and I was completely surprised.
We were up against a documentary about Syria, a documentary about migration in Europe. We were up against some really big topics of our time. And here we are, with this little film from Thailand about one family. Then I found out a few days later that winning the award meant that we were automatically qualified for the Oscars. We didn’t end up getting nominated or shortlisted, but just to be qualified, with 150 films in the world, is huge. This was when the serious negotiations with Netflix started.
What was it like to follow the family during their time of grief?
The family has been really gracious and open right from the beginning. They’re academics, too, so they truly believe that putting their story out there, giving out information, even if a lot of people don’t agree with them, is always a good thing. Because isn’t it a good thing to have debate in society? Where would society be if we can’t discuss things?
The thing that keeps me up at night is how this film is going to affect them. They’ve always been really open, but I can’t control what the public will think of it. In my documentaries, and all of my work, I tell the story as honestly as I can, and of course, telling things honestly opens you up for criticism. It raises these questions about what is life and death, and science, and faith. Those are intellectual questions about our very existence. It also connects with the audience on an emotional level because of this great love the family has for their daughter. I think it’s something that will push the audience to reflect on who they are, and what they believe... [but] the last thing I want to do is to retraumatize them.
They must’ve been really open for you to make a film about something that’s very personal for them.
I think they saw all these other journalists come, and they spent an hour or a day, but I was the one that stayed. I was the one that really tried to understand them, and I think they saw that determination.
Is Hope Frozen your proudest achievement so far?
I’m proud of most of the stories I do, but Hope Frozen is the biggest, longest, and hardest project I’ve ever done. The very first time I met the family and talked to them was more than five years ago. It took five years from production, to editing, to festivals, to Netflix. It was a journey that took away half of my 30s [laughs].