Grief and Cryonics Collide in Award-Winning Documentary Hope Frozen


by Sam Kolesnik


No parent expects the nightmare of terminal illness to become their child’s reality. When two-year-old Matheryn (“Einz”) Naovaratpong was diagnosed with ependymoblastoma, a rare brain cancer, her parents tried every available avenue to help their daughter survive. In Hope Frozen, director Pailin Wedel documents the Naovaratpongs’ controversial decision to cryogenically preserve their young daughter in hopes that she will one day live again. 

Bioethical questions abound when discussing cryonics. As a frontier technology that sometimes sounds more like science fiction than reality, it is fertile ground for splashy headlines and moralistic judgments. Wedel brings the tabloid-tempting nature of the Naovaratpongs’ story to ground with her heartbreaking profile of the family’s devastating grief. 

The documentary’s periodic home video clips show the Naovaratpongs’ immense love for their daughter. In one especially poignant clip, Matheryn’s father, Sahatorn Naovaratpong, urges his son, Matrix, to talk about how excited he is to have a younger sister on the way. In another clip, Sahatorn, with his camera on family members smiling in the car, records a message to Matheryn that she’ll never be able to say that her family didn’t love her. 

Of course, it’s uncertain if there will be a future where Matheryn will be able to view the recordings her family made for her. Hope Frozen explores this uncertainty by highlighting Sahatorn’s intense faith that technology will continue to advance, perhaps one day making possible the revival and cure of his daughter. It’s a faith that persists in a world of ethical quandaries and scientific uncertainty.

Matrix, exhibiting a bright intellectual curiosity, is enlisted in his father’s faith in future scientific advancement. At one point Matrix remarks that it would be his own life’s greatest achievement to bring back his sister. Matheryn’s mother, Nareerat, opines that perhaps she holds onto the grief in order to still feel close to Matheryn. Matrix relates a similar sentiment, commenting that he wants to remember the difficult times because they are still memories of his sister. 

Grief, a prominent figure of Hope Frozen in its own right, seems to overtake the Naovaratpong family. As the hope for and faith in Matheryn’s future continues to obsess the family, a question arises as to whether or not cryonics inhibits the grieving process. With a loved one cryogenically preserved and their future unknown, is healing for surviving family members stalled in a perpetual state of uncertainty?

In a story about a technology that is rife with “what-if” scenarios, director Pailin Wedel compassionately and judiciously focuses Hope Frozen on the indisputable love the Naovaratpongs have for Matheryn. 

Even as the documentary touches on the media storm surrounding Matheryn’s cryogenic preservation, the controversy takes a far-off backseat to the tender and relatable subject of familial love. Regardless of your opinion on cryonics, Hope Frozen is a worthwhile exploration of how and why a family might choose it. 

Best watched with an open mind and lots of tissues, Pailin Wedel’s Hope Frozen presents an emotional chronicle of parents doing what they think is best for their child, no matter the cost. 

After all, who can say with certainty what the future holds?

Hope Frozen recently won the 2019 award for Best International Feature at Hot Docs and is currently on the film festival circuit. Follow the Hope Frozen Facebook page for screening updates.