WATERVILLE — Documentary filmmaker Ryan Cook of Waterville grew up thinking Donn Fendler was more fascinating than a comic book superhero or sports star.

“He was more than a story to me; he was really inspirational,” said Cook, who, with Derek Desmond, crafted the 2011 documentary “Finding Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine 72 Years Later.”

The documentary’s world premiere was July 16, 2011, at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville.

Fendler, 84, said in a 2011 interview that he felt honored to attend the premiere with Cook and Desmond and participate in the question-and-answer session.

Cook was a youngster when his father read him the 128-page book, “Lost on a Mountain in Maine,” by Fendler and Joseph B. Egan that details the 12-year-old Fendler’s harrowing nine-day experience lost on Mount Katahdin in 1939.

As a boy, Cook also hiked Mount Katahdin with his dad and he remembers Fendler’s presentation to his elementary school class.

Cook, who studied film at Emerson College in Boston, wanted to capture Fendler on camera telling his story in his own words.

So the 2005 Waterville Senior High School graduate and Desmond, a friend who also studied film at Emerson, focused a lens on Fendler while they interviewed him on his porch in Newport.

The result was a 60-minute documentary.

Cook said he now dreams of making a feature-length film about the adventure, which would be shot in Maine, complete with bloodhounds, mill workers taking part in the search and airplanes flying overhead.

“It wouldn’t be based on a true story,” said Cook. “It would be a true story.”

Cook said he and Desmond have pored through newspaper accounts of the event and interviewed a man whose father was part of one of the search parties. According to news accounts, as time dragged on, Cook said many feared Fendler was dead and the search was for a body rather than a boy.

“It was a huge (national) story in 1939,” said Cook. “The country was just recovering from the Depression and when he was found it was uplifting. He had traveled 80 miles, lost most of his clothes and lost about 20 pounds. It was epic.”

Cook said the story still resonates because, “people, I think, crave something authentic and true. People will feel good when they leave the theater.”

Cook said he believes the public is inspired by the resilience of the 12-year-old boy who, in the face of pain, hunger and fear, “continued to put one foot in front of the other and push forward.”

Fendler said his experience 72 years ago strengthened his faith in God, taught him to be responsible for his actions and gave him a greater appreciation of his family.

During much of the school year, Fendler travels to elementary schools to speak about his fateful hike that began July 17, 1939, almost 72 years to the day of the documentary’s world premiere.

These days, Fendler said fishing is a favorite pastime.

“I don’t hike, I don’t camp and I don’t run,” Fendler said. “I had enough of that in the Army.”



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