Finding some of the oldest park rangers in the country isn't an impossible task, especially for a group of Internet-savvy filmmakers like the ones behind "Your Friend, Ranger Doug," a short film featured in the first episode of this upcoming season of "Fine Cut Festival of Films" September 29. A Google search turns up millions of results, mostly articles about the oldest living park ranger — a title reserved for 99-year-old Betty Reid Soskin. After sifting through endless webpages, the team came upon an obscure feature article on a 94-year-old Glacier National Park ranger published with a small, local newspaper, Hungry Horse News. The young filmmakers were searching for a compelling story to tell for their short documentary, one that could help show the effects of climate change on a human scale.
A photo of a man of small stature and deep-set eyes crowned with the iconic, broad-brimmed flat hat tops the search results page. Further down the queue was an audio interview. A gentle and frail voice boomed with endless stories about his over 50 years as a park ranger at Glacier National Park.
"His stories, all of them were laced with some kind of message," said co-director Sara Nell, "He was a storyteller, and he told [stories] in order to teach you something. That's exactly what you want in terms of an interview and character. Someone who isn't just saying it, but has something to say and share."
The team — composed of co-directors Sara Nell and Claire Jantzen, producer Kayla Borkovec, cinematographer Céline Francois and second editor Lexi Johnson — was sold instantly. They found the perfect character: Doug Follett, longtime Glacier National park ranger and soon-to-be star of their short documentary project.
The only problem? Follett lived over 1,300 miles away and had no form of social media, an email or a cell phone. But like true documentary filmmakers, they were persistent. The team got a hold of Follet's landline number through the Hungry Horse News journalist who wrote the story and left Follet several messages.
He called back.
"We just got lucky," Francois said. "He called us back and decided to put his faith in this random group of filmmakers from California."
The 17-minute environmental documentary, produced as part of a class at Chapman University called "Community Voices," follows 94-year-old Follett as he reflects on his life as Glacier National Park's oldest park ranger and the lasting legacy he'll leave behind.
"Our team, we all kind of knew we wanted to do something environmental," Francois said. "And I had personally been wanting to do a film about a park ranger for a while."
I think [climate change] was just a common thing that we all felt passionate about. And I think that speaks to our generation. I think most young people feel the same way.Claire Jantzen
When the team met Follet in-person for the first time, he couldn't go more than a few beats without stopping to strike a conversation with various community members and passersby. What they knew to be true was confirmed immediately: they had a natural storyteller.
"The thing that struck me the most was that it seemed like he knew everyone who walked in," Borkovec said. "We realized he was such a community figure and kind of a local celebrity."
The group met Follett at a local café, sheltered from the crisp December winter in his hometown Whitefish, Montana — a small railroad town nestled west of the jagged peaks, lakes and glacier-carved valleys of Glacier National Park.
Because filming took place in November and December, Follett was on his off-season as a park ranger, a situation that was less than ideal for the filmmakers. National Park permit restrictions meant that they couldn't film him in his official park ranger outfit either. But to their surprise, as they walked through the national park, Follett would strike impromptu conversations with park visitors along the trail as their cameras were rolling.
"It was incredible how every time you would walk into a place with him, specifically out in the park, he would just start talking to one person," Jantzen said. "And then five to ten people would just rally around him just because they were so intrigued. It's like you can tell why he does what he does."
"He just can't help connecting with people and trying to tell these stories," Borkovec added. "It was so cool to see how he connects with the community like that."
Apart from his over 60 years as a park ranger, Follett is a gifted poet. His poems, which in a way serve as chapter bookends throughout the documentary, are meditative musings of Follett's deep admiration and respect for the environment.
Come with me to Sperry Chalet
Where the grizzlies roam
And the white goats play
Where the marmot's whistle
Splits the sky
And the eagle's shadow
Tells you why
Walk where wolverines
Play in the snow
On a warm spring day
When the waterfalls
Go with a rush
To the lake below
And on to find their destiny
So far away — in the quiet sea.
Gather at night
When the day is done
And the firelight laughs
At the setting sun
And join all the ghosts
Of days gone by
Who come out to dance
When the moon is high
And as you leave
When it's time to go
And you stop to wave
From the trail below
I think you'll see
With the Sperry crew
Your Spirit —
Waving back at you
— Doug Follett, "The Spirits of Sperry"
"I think we knew from the beginning we wanted to incorporate [his poems]," said Nell, who also edited the documentary. "Even when we were filming, he loved to just spit out his poetry whenever he could. He loved his poetry. He has a poem for everything in his life. And so it's just super easy to find where those fit into the film." In a deleted scene, Follett attends a slam poetry open mic. There, in a young and hip art studio, the 94-year-old recites a poem about his experience growing up alongside Kootenai Indians to a younger crowd. The scene was one of many that were left out of the final cut of "Your Friend, Ranger Doug." In their two weeks of filming, the crew gathered about 24 hours of footage that was shaved down to the film's 17-minute runtime.
But the documentary is more than a character study and chronicle of Follett's storied life. The film addresses greater themes of climate change and sheds light on Glacier National Parks' dwindling glaciers.
"We're seeing before our own eyes the impacts that climate change is having," Francois said. "I think a lot of it too, is sort of this out of sight, out of mind mentality. If you can't see the glaciers melting, it's kind of very easy to just forget about it and pretend it's a non-issue."
With Follett, a cast of characters paint the gravity of our climate change problem from Whitefish residents like Follett's daughters Jen and Audrey Follet to experts like United States Geological Survey glaciologist Caitlyn Florentine. In the film's final minute, it shares a staggering statistic. Today, only 25 glaciers remain at Glacier National Park, a sharp decline from the 150 that were present when the park was established in 1910.
Despite the grim reality of Glacier National Park's melting glaciers and other interconnected global climate change issues, the filmmakers wanted the documentary to end with a hopeful message and a call to action to the next generation. It's a sentiment that aligns with Follet's own thoughts on the climate crisis.
"Even though it is a tragedy, what we have done to the environment," Follet said in the film, "I have the highest hope that the younger generations are aware of this and I think they are."
More than anything, the crew is grateful to have been able to capture the story of Ranger Doug at just the right time. Apart from capturing their footage right before COVID-19 changed the way film productions operated, the team doesn't think Follett will return to be a park ranger anytime soon.
As a whole, the group feels fortunate to be able to tell an urgent and important story at such an opportune time.
"Environmental filmmaking is so powerful because it literally brings all of these really urgent climate issues to your front door. Right in front of your face. There's no avoiding it," Francois said. "This is the thing that's happening. And we need to do something about it. And I think that's why I love documentary so much. It has the power to really open people's eyes to different worldviews or perspectives or ways of life. And I think now's the best time more than ever to be using documentary film to spread those kinds of messages."
Watch "Your Friend, Ranger Doug" and 20 other short films on "Fine Cut."