Five years ago, a Thai toddler died of a rare brain tumor. Her devastated parents made the unorthodox decision to freeze the 2-year-old girl’s brain in an American facility – making her the youngest person ever to be cryogenically preserved.
That set the stage for science and Buddhist beliefs to clash as faith ran up against reality.
“Our body is like hardware, and the soul is software,” Sahatorn says in a scene from Hope Frozen: A Quest to Live Twice by Thai-American journalist Pailin Wedel. “It’s like we had manufactured a defective computer, so we have to put it on hold. We believe that the computer could work again.”
Telling that family’s deeply personal story took Pailin five years of filmmaking to create the 79-minute feature documentary, which premiered at the 2019 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, where it was named best international feature. Since then, Hope Frozen moved on to dozens more film festivals and events before hitting Netflix worldwide last month.
“Hope Frozen is the biggest, longest and hardest project I’ve ever done. The very first time I met the family was more than five years ago. So it took me five years from production, to editing, to festivals, to Netflix. It was a journey that took away half of my 30s,” Pailin, 38, said with a laugh.
Pailin, whose parents are Thai and American, began working at newspapers 16 years ago before embracing video. She spoke to us about the making of Hope Frozen and shared her views on journalism after working in the field for 16 years. Here how she came to tell the story and the response so far in our lightly edited conversation below.
How did Hope Frozen start?
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. So what was supposed to be a few minutes of conversation turned into a much more in-depth, more than hour-long conversation about life, how technology redefined the meaning of death for them and how they honestly and deeply care for and love their daughter.
And that just really touched me on both the emotional level and intellectual level. And I had so many questions I wanted to ask, so they spent the next two and a half years trying to answer them.
What was it like to follow a grieving family?
The family was 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?
Intellectually, they were always very open and honest and were really great with having a camera around … I didn’t have to push them to talk to me, or to film during an inconvenient time for them … So they’ve always been very open and honest with me, and I’m extremely grateful.
What was the most difficult challenge for you as the director?
I think the most difficult 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 … That’s what is really difficult, you know, knowing that I really want to make the film, knowing that this is a story that a lot of people will connect with. 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.
So, I guess the most difficult thing is to make sure that I tell them [the audience] the story as honestly as I can, but also be aware of how things will affect the story. The last thing I want to do is to retraumatize them.
Did you expect your first documentary to win this much acclaim and be picked up by Netflix?
Everything has been completely unexpected. It was incredibly difficult to fund this film. I spent two years applying to 14 different funding bodies and pitched seven times to a live audience. I didn’t get anything until two years, on one of my last pitches. When we edited the first cut and sent it to some festivals, 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.
Share with us the moment Hope Frozen was announced the best international feature documentary.
So we were able to premiere at Hot Docs, which is North America’s largest documentary film festival. The festival only paid for three days of hotel, so the whole team was planning to leave before the awards ceremony. But then I got an email that said “Hey, I think you might wanna stay.” So 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.
Of course, the biggest award is the last one announced during the night. They called our name, and I was completely surprised. We were up against a documentary about Syria, a documentary about migration in Europe. So we were up against some really big topics of our time, and here we are, just a little film from Thailand about a single family. We never thought that it could ever happen … Everything has been unexpected and miraculous to me.
What were the most intense assignments you’ve done so far?
I was a still photographer when I first started. Back then, I covered a lot of the Redshirt and Yellowshirt protests, and the violence it brought upon. I remember being on the frontlines of the protest, 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 site which was a Muslim school that was burned down while the students were still in it. That was probably one of the most heart-wrenching experiences that I’ve had. Actually, people came up to me and said, “You know, these people burned their 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.
Do you see videojournalism as the future of journalism?
No, nothing is 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.
“Hope Frozen” is currently available on Netflix.