What’s in an icon? As part of Thailand NOW’s mission to share authentic insights into all things Thai, we’re spotlighting iconic individuals who have not only excelled in their respective areas, but influenced the complex tapestry of Thailand as it exists today and, in doing so, inspire us to be a part of the fabric of Thai society.
In this Icon NOW interview, Pailin Wedel, the Thai-American journalist, filmmaker, and Emmy-award winning documentarian behind “Hope Frozen,” talks about her unlikely path to photojournalism and gets candid about what it takes to make documentaries.
For over a decade, Pailin Wedel has traveled to countries all around Asia to report on stories for Al Jazeera’s 101 East program, as well as The New York Times and National Geographic. She’s become a master of her craft, capturing real moments of humanity and dangerous situations and presenting them in moving, relatable narratives. In 2019, her documentary “Hope Frozen” released on Netflix was the first Thai film to win an international Emmy.
Yet surprisingly, she didn’t originally set out to do any of this as a career.
“If you had asked me as a kid what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said ‘scientist, scientist!’ and so I graduated with a biology degree,” Pailin says, revealing that she earned a biology degree and her honors thesis involved coming up with formulae for the extinction of a tree species in Khao Yai National Park.
“I was spending three months in the jungle, sometimes alone, and I realized that I missed people and that maybe scientific research was not the thing for me.”
Nonetheless, the experience opened an unexpected door to a different path.
“One of the things that I took with me on that trip was my dad’s old F2 Nikon camera. I took a lot of photos, and I ended up picking up a photojournalism minor and then eventually got an internship with a newspaper in North Carolina. As I got better, I grew to really love it. Spending people’s most intimate moments with them. To really understand the world in a unique way.”
“I come from a family of writers”
During her time as a photojournalist, Pailin became drawn to the idea of telling stories through film. She taught herself to edit and became captivated by working with people on the ground.
“My husband is a writer, my father is a writer, and my sister is a writer, so I come from a family of writers,” Pailin says. “I think the biggest difference when we talk about our work is that they don’t have to be there,” whereas she has to capture the moment on camera.
This drive to document moments on camera would see Pailin reporting for Al Jazeera and The New York Times, some of the top international news agencies in the world. As is the nature of news, Pailin would often find herself interviewing those who were dealing with trauma, visiting disaster areas, and reporting on tragedy. But it’s not all bad.
“You see a lot of inequality in this field of work, and you are exposed to a lot of horrible things. However, you are also exposed to a lot of wonderful things. You are there for people’s best moments and people’s worst moments. When they find out they’ve lost everything or when they find out their kids are still alive. You get to witness history—seeing both the hope and the tragedy.”
“I’m an oddity and I think that helps.”
Pailin spent her early years living in Thailand, India, and Singapore before pursuing a post-secondary education in the United States, which has given her plenty of practice as an outsider in a field that would take her around the world.
“I hope my background has taught me how to be respectful in most places. I’m always a stranger most places I go. I’m an oddity and I think that helps. There’s no expectation for someone who comes from the outside world. I’m always an outsider and as an outsider you have to have some humility in the way that you conduct yourself. I think that it is what you learn as somebody who is biracial and speaks multiple languages.”
As Pailin grew more confident in her ability to tell stories on film, she began her biggest undertaking: directing her own feature-length documentary.
“Hope Frozen” tells the heartbreaking story of a child whose family makes the difficult decision to cryogenically preserve her body after she dies of brain cancer in the hope of one day reviving her when a cure is finally found. The story had gone viral in Thai television and Twitter. Pailin’s husband, an American journalist who was interviewing the family, had asked for her help as an interpreter, fearing the interviews would get technical. Instead, conversation took a very different turn.
“I just had 1,000 more questions”
Pailin recounts, “We thought it was going to be a 15-minute conversation but it turned into a couple hours of philosophizing about what is life? What is death? What is grief? What is love? What is religion? It was such a loving and fascinating family that had done something very controversial in the eyes of the world, and I just had 1,000 more questions, and I kept going back until there were no questions left. This took me two and half years.”
The documentary was well received internationally, screening at several film festivals and winning best international feature at Hot Docs in Toronto, which qualified it for the Oscars. “Hope Frozen” eventually went on to win the Emmy.
Another recent project from Pailin was her touching Netflix film, “The Trapped 13: How We Survived the Thai Cave,” which took a deep dive into the minds of the Wild Boars team during their 10 days trapped in the dark in Nang Non cave. Originally one of just a handful of people to be told the full story, Pailin explains what that experience was like.
“I felt so privileged that they were happy to share their story with me. It is one of the things that is so wonderful about journalism and that’s an example of a story that is full of hope. My film tells the story of their mental journey and I believe that’s 80% of how they were able to survive long enough to be rescued. It’s a mental game when you are in complete darkness. If you ever wanted to know what it takes to survive in a dark place (except for a couple of flashlights) and without food for 10 days, this is the film to watch.”
“You aren’t going to run out that marathon.”
There is a powerful amount of dedication that goes into producing a feature-length project such “Hope Frozen” or “The Trapped 13.” Serving these stories requires a long-term commitment.
“If that story doesn’t excite you every day when you wake up, or at least still leave you curious, you aren’t going to run out that marathon. ‘Hope Frozen’ and ‘The Trapped 13’ are stories that had me so curious they lasted for years. However, I’ve also done fun short stories. I did a really cute story for National Geographic about these mine-sniffing rats. They can smell everything… that was a story I really enjoyed doing because I got to hang out with animals all day.”
When asked what advice she had for someone hoping to follow in her footsteps, the documentarian gave a clear-eyed, if somber answer (much to my editor’s chagrin).
“Don’t do it!” she laughs. “Journalism is a tough industry. You have to enjoy the act of journalism. A lot of people who come into it with a lot of idealism and think they will change the world in some way will burn out very quickly. It’s a really unfriendly world towards journalism, especially in this region. It’s quite hostile and there’s a risk that comes with doing journalism. There are financial and personal sacrifices as well as the possibility of harm or even jail. It’s a tough environment. Filmmaking is hard too because it requires a lot of capital. Depending on what topics you choose, there are also great risks involved—especially in documentaries.”
After seven years of making documentaries, Pailin is finally taking some time to rest, focusing on spending time with her family and her cat. However, this certainly doesn’t mean she has stopped working.
Now, Pailin is spending her days teaching and consulting—giving back to her community and advising other people on their projects. She currently works with a conservation group on shorebirds called The Young Shorebirds Camp for Thai-speaking university students who are interested in conservation and documentary filmmaking. As of the time of writing this article, the camp is open for enrollment (🇹🇭).
After having the chance to talk to this highly accomplished, intelligent creator, I can’t recommend this enough.