Emmy-Winner Pailin Wedel on how she stays Creative

Eric E. Surbano

05 Aug 2022

Director, producer, and video journalist Pailin Wedel has told the stories of countless people in the span of her career. What keeps her going, and what’s next for her?

Pailin Wedel has seen a lot of things. The elections in Myanmar, scandals surrounding monks in Thailand, and the illegal bear trade in Southeast Asia are just the tip of the iceberg of what she’s covered in her career. Wedel has worked for news organisations like Al Jazeera and The Washington Post, and she also has a production company, 2050 Productions, founded with her husband. Despite all the stories she’s covered, the many places she’s travelled to, and the numerous people she’s met, it was Hope Frozen, her documentary released on Netlfix in 2019, that put her on the map and eventually won her the International Emmy Award for Best Documentary in 2021. The documentary, which follows the Naovaratpong family and their decision to cryogenically preserve their three-year-old daughter, made waves locally when it was first released and then resonated with international audiences when it was distributed globally by Netflix. Koktail talks to the successful storyteller about her career, how she got started, and how she keeps her creativity going in her line of work.

First thing’s first: how does it feel to be an Emmy winner?

Totally unexpected. I’m super proud of my team and grateful for the Naovaratpong family's trust in me.

Going back to how you started, you actually graduated with a degree in biology. What got you into journalism?

I still love learning about science, but ultimately, working in a lab or doing research in the jungle, which I did for my undergraduate thesis, felt isolating. I enjoyed the stories I was telling people about my experience in the field or lab more than doing the actual research. That's when I realised that maybe I don't need to be a scientist to learn about science. What I loved was being in the field and learning new things, and there are other ways of doing that.

You’ve encountered a lot of people in your job, from the Naovaratpongs to Naga headhunters. Is there an incomparable encounter you’ve had that’s on top of your list?

All of the people I meet are part of the fabric that makes me who I am. They are a part of my life story. So I don't really have a “best encounter” story. I see all the stories I do as super interesting. But I will say that the Naovaratpongs have a special place in my heart because we filmed with them for years and we have a deep understanding of one another that is deeper than most people I film with.

Covering the topics you’ve covered could be emotionally draining. How do you deal with that?

I surround myself with loved ones—people who pick me up when I am down. This is one of the most important things if you want to make documentaries that take years. It's a marathon, and you need to keep yourself healthy both mentally and physically.

Do you feel that there’s a conflict between covering stories that people want to watch and stories that people need to watch?

I think there's a big overlap between stories that people want to and need to watch. If stories directly affect people and are relevant, people will both need to and want to watch them.

For some, 'Hope Frozen' is interesting because of the sci- fi-esque solution the family undertook. However, here in Thailand, there was controversy, especially since it’s a predominantly Buddhist country. How did you deal with that?

I always try to withhold judgment in presenting someone's story, especially if their decisions don't harm anyone. I let the viewer decide for themselves what they think. Hopefully, I was able to achieve that in Hope Frozen.

You’ve been in situations and places where things can get pretty dicey really fast. Is there still fear for your safety when you go after stories like this?

Any risks I take are always calculated. No story is worth your life. I always take all the precautions necessary if there are risks involved. But most of the time, if I am working in a foreign country, I am more worried about my local team. I get to leave the country, but they don't have that option.

'Fake news' is something we hear thrown around a lot these days. How do you think disinformation can be countered?

Disinformation is really tough to combat without veering into censorship. I think consumers of the news need to be more vigilant about recognising biases in stories and doing their own fact-checking. The easiest way to figure out more truthful stories is to subscribe to media from all sides of the political spectrum and compare them. Try not to share any content you are not 100 per cent certain is factual.

Creativity is the main theme for this issue. How do you stay creative and out of a rut?

One of the best ways to stay creative is to surround yourself with diverse friends. Surround yourself with people who come from different places (even within the country), think differently, and do different things from what you do. You also need to seek different adventures. I'm not talking about expensive trips to faraway places, but something as simple as taking the BTS to a different community or learning a new skill. You need to read, watch, and listen to a variety of content. If you stay super curious about everything and keep an open mind, creative ideas will flow. Finally, to turn that idea into reality, you will need discipline. Have a routine that has a set space and time for creation.

Are there stories out there right now that’s caught your eye and you want to cover?

So many! But because of the risks, funding, or time, they are not possible at the moment.

What are you currently working on? Anything we can look forward to?

There is definitely something in the works, but I am not ready to talk about it quite yet. My work sometimes takes years, so you'll have to wait and see.