The Natural Progression Of Pailin Wedel From In Front Of The Camera To Behind
Born to a political science professor, Dr Yuangrat, and an American foreign correspondent, Paul, Pailin Wedel is herself a seasoned photo-journalist, documentarian and director of award-winning film Hope Frozen who grew up in Thailand and studied at NIST International School where she got her first taste of life around cameras. “I was 14 and had written a screenplay—in rap—about Cinderella with a bunch of my friends and it got some media attention. A TV show called Teen Talk came and did a story on us and the producer asked me to do a screen test. I ended up spending three years as one of the show’s announcers,” she laughs.
In 2000 Pailin left for the USA to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and despite her early brush with the media world she says her real aspirations were focused elsewhere. “I always had it in mind that I was going to be a scientist. I was really into the environment and wanted to do something in nature, just like Jane Goodall.” Hence her degree in biology. Before graduating in 2004 she visited Ecuador to help research cloud forests and was part of a team that discovered a new species of orchid. “I was really into it,” she continues, “and when I got back to Thailand I spent 14 months tramping around Khao Yai counting agarwood trees. But then one day I suddenly realised how lonely I felt. I think I had this very romantic notion of what it was to be a field researcher or botanist. The reality, I discovered, is that I’m too much of a people person to isolate in nature for very long. I still take an interest in the environment—we all should—but I knew then it was never going to be my calling.”
Finding herself at something of a crossroads, Pailin recalled her enjoyment of the photo-journalism classes she had managed to fit in while at university. She’d kept up her skills with one of her father’s old film cameras and so she applied for an internship at a North Carolina newspaper. She was successful and this led to a job as a photographer on The News & Observer in Raleigh, where she worked for over three years and met future husband Patrick Winn. “I remember coming into the newsroom one day in 2008 to file an assignment and on the television there were images of tanks rolling through Bangkok. It was footage of the 2006 coup but seeing Thailand on the TV gave me a huge jolt of homesickness,” she says. Within the year she was back in the kingdom.
The young woman spent the next two years as a freelance journalist before going to work at Associated Press in 2010 as Asia interactive producer. “I was in charge of all the countries between Japan and India and my job was to tell visual stories, put together the big pieces of the day—be it flooding in India, riots in Australia or a general election in Japan—and post them online,” she explains. However, after three years of editing other people’s work she found she longed to be back in the field herself. “I missed shooting and processing my own film and pictures so I went back to freelancing and started my own company, 2050 Productions.” Soon she was providing short news stories to National Geographic, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times among others. She laughs, “I often edited the stories myself and they just kept getting longer and longer. So I ended up doing more on-camera and investigative stories for a programme called 101 East on Al Jazeera, documenting hard-hitting issues ranging from women’s rights and feminists in Korea to Myanmar’s political prisoners.”
With more than a decade’s worth of experience in journalism, the 38-year-old Pailin has also earned a name for herself as an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Her biggest triumph to date in the genre came about after she tagged along with her husband on one of his interviews. “Patrick is also a journalist and he’d heard about a family who had cryo-preserved their lost child. Their story had gone viral on Thai TV and he asked me if I wanted to come along to his interview with them, maybe help translate any technical or scientific terms he might not know. He spent an hour interviewing them and I ended up spending two-and-a-half years with them,” she chuckles.
Meeting the Naovaratpong family raised searching questions for Pailin. “Our conversations were long and deep—we talked about life and how technology is redefining it and the way we see death. We talked about their love for their departed child and their Buddhist faith. I just kept wanting to come back and ask them more questions,” she says. With the family’s blessing she brought in her director of photography, Mark Dobbin, to record these intimate conversations and other moments with the family. “For two years Mark worked for free and in the end we had enough for a 79-minute film.”
All the while Pailin was pursuing the protracted process of securing funding to finish the piece and after seven pitches and more than 14 grant applications it won a Whicker’s World Foundation funding award in 2017, which paid for much of the production. Hope Frozen premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in 2019, winning Best International Feature Documentary, which also earned it Oscar nomination interest. While the film wasn’t picked by the Academy in the end, it nevertheless attracted the attention of entertainment giant Netflix. The lady smiles at the memory. “Just having the film win funding in the first place…and then a respected award…and then making it onto Netflix…it was beyond my wildest imaginings.”
Since those spectacular high points Pailin has returned to focusing on her journalism but admits she is also in the research phase for another feature length film. “The thing about them is that they have to have multiple layers and characters that really touch the audience. You simply don’t run across interesting people with a powerful story to tell every day, especially in times like these. I can’t go find the stories at the moment, so I read and read and hope that the stories find me.”
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