Interview by Danny Tynan
“How is technology changing the way we think about death?” – Pailin Wedel
Pailin Wedel is a Thai-American photojournalist and filmmaker – and the winner of our 2017 Film & TV Funding Award. She began her career in 2004 as a stills photographer for an American newspaper, where she fell in love with video narrative. Her work has tackled themes of faith, trauma and the clash between tradition and modernity. Pailin regularly produces films for National Geographic, Monocle and The New York Times, and is the founder of 2050 Productions. Following her award-winning turn at the Hot Docs International Film Festival Pailin spoke to Whicker volunteer Danny Tynan over Skype from Bangkok.
Can you tell us about your first feature documentary, Hope Frozen?
Hope Frozen is about a family of Thai scientists that decides to cryopreserve their two-year-old daughter following her death from cancer. She was the youngest person in the world to be cryopreserved.
The documentary reveals a family in mourning, seeking answers not only from Buddhism but also from their profound faith in science. It’s a glimpse into how technology will change the way we grieve in the 21st century.
What compelled you to make this film?
I wanted to profile a family grappling with existential themes of life and death in a totally unique way. I also think the documentary serves as a counterweight to themes of backwardness that dominate Western portrayals of Southeast Asia.
Congratulations on winning the Best International Documentary Award at Hot Docs in April 2019 – how does it feel?
It was so unexpected. I’m just thrilled.
Was making documentaries your first passion? If no, then what was?
Still photography is definitely my first love. From there I learned video and did short news stories, and now I do documentaries. Storytelling is my passion.
How did you first come across the family featured in Hope Frozen?
Their story was heavily publicised by the media in Thailand. I went with my husband to help him interview the family for a news story. My husband [Patrick Winn] is really the person who found the story. While I was interviewing the family, I realised that their story was incredibly unique. There were so many things about the family’s story that stayed with me long after the interview, these questions that I became very interested in. How is technology changing the way we think about death? How does it change the way we love and grieve? We filmed the family for more than two years after that first meeting.
How did you gain the trust of the family and convince them to take part in the project?
They were always very gracious with their time. They are very busy people, they had three kids and busy jobs in science and engineering, so the most difficult challenge was scheduling the time. As Thais, the private space can be very private, but I also knew I needed to film in that private space to tell the full story. I gained their trust by being honest. I told them that I wanted to do something a little different from the usual news story. I told them why I was filming some of the scenes and I told them when I did get funding or if I didn’t. I kept them in the loop, and by doing that they gave me their trust. I fully appreciate this trust. The family thanked me for staying while the other media outlets left. They congratulated me on making the final film. They are very supportive of me. It took almost four years to make Hope Frozen.
How did you develop the film’s clear style and aesthetic?
I chose people who shared my vision for Hope Frozen. I asked the Director of Photography Mark Dobbin (A.C.S.) and our editor/co-writer Nina Ijäs to watch films I thought had the look I was going for. I wanted to make Thailand look futuristic, you never hear of Bangkok looking futuristic. In the edit, we talked about the symbolism and imagery in the film – like how there is imagery of water when the scenes touch on the cycle of life. Matrix’s hair cutting/shaving scenes signals a change in his life.
What are your next steps in promoting the film?
I’m just at the beginning. The film has received great reviews by Scene Creek and Canada’s POV magazine. I’ve been interviewed by Women and Hollywood. Tomorrow I have an interview with Thai PBS and in a few days, another interview with a Facebook group with a million followers. I’ve been in the weekend edition of Matichon, one of Thailand’s top newspapers. The promotion in Thailand has been really, really good. I don’t have a publicist so I am unable to gain the wide-scale publicity that documentaries with bigger budgets have. I mainly gain my publicity outside of Thailand from winning documentary prizes. For example, I had quite a bit of publicity after winning the Hot Docs Best International Feature Documentary Award for Hope Frozen.
Would you like to be cryopreserved?
I don’t think that I am important enough, to be honest. But I think it is a different situation when it is a child and the child’s parents want her to have another chance at life.
How did you find the process of securing funding to make Hope Frozen?
Finding funding for any documentary is difficult and uncertain. I pitched Hope Frozen in Germany, France, England, Japan and Korea. So that’s 7 different times in 5 different countries. The film kept on getting into the pitching finals but it rarely won. It is a difficult and controversial story to pitch. I also wrote about a dozen different funding applications and I didn’t get any of them. At The Whickers [the majority funder of Hope Frozen] they really understood what I was trying to do.
Many funders prefer to highlight stories that shed light on social injustices in my region. Those stories are important, and in fact those are the stories I focus on as a journalist. But I also think there should be a diversity of stories from every region, otherwise we risk creating a simplistic perception of who we are.
Are you currently working on a new documentary?
I have just finished a reportage documentary for Al Jazeera English called ‘Asia’s Meth Boom’, which was broadcast in April and focuses on the meth trade in Asia. At the back of my mind I am always looking for the next feature. But ultimately, I think that the stories find me.
Your work as a journalist has taken you into some challenging and dangerous situations, how does this work compare to the work that you did on Hope Frozen?
I do a lot of work in Myanmar where journalists are persecuted for certain stories. I am much more worried for the journalists I work with who live there, not for me.
With Hope Frozen the challenge was in gaining the funding and maintaining a good relationship with the family. There weren’t the usual physical and legal risks as when I do my reportage stories. That said, Thailand is one of the few countries in the world with a criminal defamation law—which means that telling true stories always comes with a risk of prison if you end up offending someone. Truth is not a defence in court. I believe that is part of why there are fewer documentary filmmakers and investigative reporters here in Thailand.
What advice would you give to a documentary maker who is just starting out?
Surround yourself with people who believe in you and your vision. The first to share this vision with me were my husband/Associate Producer Patrick Winn and the Director of Photography, Mark Dobbin. After the trailer was cut, a lot of people who immediately connected with the film were women—namely my Executive Producer Amanda Feldon, the editor and co-scriptwriter Nina Ijäs, our editing consultants at Ten Thousand Images, our funders at The Whickers, and our co-producers at Bili Bili.
Make an effort to keep connecting with people who dig your ideas. Find your cheerleaders and hold on to them for dear life. It’s a marathon.
-Danny Tynan is an aspiring filmmaker who participated in The Whickers/BFI Documentary course in early 2018, where he won an award for his authored short documentary, Phone in Sick.