BILLINGS — Sept. 24 at the Babcock Theatre, the public will get a first look at RETURN, a locally made documentary film about a Vietnam War veteran’s father-son journey back to Vietnam for the first time since the war.
Check out the official trailer here.
Healing Old Wounds
RETURN tells the story of retired Green Beret Jim Markel Sr., who embarks on a healing journey to retrace his steps, share his wartime experiences with his son, Jim Markel Jr., treat his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and seek out the mountain tribes he once lived with and fought alongside as a Special Forces officer.
At a moment when the public seems critically aware of the vast mental health challenges facing military veterans and their kin, the filmmakers hope RETURN will offer intimate insight into one family’s story of trauma and healing.
Time to Remember
“The whole picture of the Vietnam War is contained in the memories of all the people who lived through it, fought in it, even watched it play out on TV. All those perspectives are uniquely valuable. And, in learning about the subject, we found that many veterans feel sidelined, like their experience has been omitted from that whole picture,” Director Peter Tolton said.
“As millennials, we learned pretty quickly that everybody our parents’ age and older has their own Vietnam story, and they’re all different,” Producer Stan Parker added. “We set out to tell a deeply personal story from a single subjective viewpoint. We hope this film encourages people to be open and compassionate listeners.”
For their three-week trip to Vietnam, the Markels, Tolton, and Parker were joined by Vinh Nguyễn, who served as an indispensable guide and translator. Tolton then extended his trip for another ten days of travel and filming, working directly with Nguyễn and the talented Vietnamese filmmaker, Quang Trần Hồng.
“The film would truly not have been possible without the help of these Vietnamese contributors, who became friends along the way,” Parker said.
Production in Vietnam, plus thirty days of shooting in Montana between 2016 and 2020, resulted in over 125 hours of original footage. That material, edited together over the past three years with archival newsreels and personal 8mm family film, culminated in a 90-minute documentary.
Setting out from the teeming metropolis of Saigon the crew head north along the coast, through underground war-era tunnels and up the Ho Chi Minh Highway to the Central Highlands. The film is both an immersive, geographical exploration of modern Vietnam as well as a poignant inner journey through time and bears witness to the weighty work of re-opening the past.
“This is not a ‘talking head’ piece cut together with a bunch of old footage. It’s not quite a ‘historical’ doc. At its core, it’s an observational doc.” Tolton said. “We set out to tell a purposefully subjective story that really transports you into the moments and ideas our human subjects are experiencing. Of course the material gets heavy at times. But there is dancing and laughter, many fun moments. A spirit of adventure runs throughout. I won’t spoil it, but we want viewers to leave the theater with feelings of optimism and renewal.”
Initially, RETURN was created as a response to a question asked by so many military veteran families: “Why does Dad never talk about the war”? While these themes are familiar to military families, the film also touches on universal issues: caring for an aging parent, reckoning with the past, reflecting on the reasons for war, and exploring the homeland of America’s abandoned allies in the painful war on communism. As a warning to viewers, the film directly addresses the topic of suicide.
“This film is not the end-all-be-all of explaining the Vietnam War or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are already great resources out there for understanding those topics,” Parker said. “Rather, the film is a personal journey, intended to spark viewers’ engagement with the untouched questions of their own lives, especially when it comes to understanding other generations.”
RETURN is a distinctly local effort, featuring the creative work of collaborators such as Erik Olson (composer), Sam Lustig (motion graphics), Tyson Kreiter (sound mix), Sam Steingraber (trailer editor), and Ty Herman and Alex Nauman (additional music).
“One of the most rewarding feelings in this process is dipping into our community’s abundant talent pool,” Tolton said. “I’m a confirmed generalist, so I can’t get by without people who are really, really good at their craft. Everybody has ownership over the project, and that’s reflected in the great work that they do.”
The film was made possible through the generosity of sponsors, donors, and grant funding. Among the film’s local sponsors include the Montana Television Network, First Interstate Bank, Avitus Group, Russ Plath Law, Lou Taubert Ranch Outfitters, CMYK, the First Presbyterian Church Mission Committee, and American Legion Post 4. Grant funding was made possible by the Greater Montana Foundation, the Montana Arts Council, and the Montana Film Office. Dozens of individuals made significant donations to the project. In the development process, guidance and support was provided by a local committee, the Mayor’s Challenge to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans, and their Families. Fiscal sponsorship and moral support is provided by Art House Cinema.