“Return” is a film about a retired Green Beret who embarks on a trip from Billings back to Vietnam, where he served two tours of duty during the war. Produced and directed by Billings-based filmmakers Pete Tolton and Stan Parker, the documentary is set against the backdrop of the complex context of the Vietnam War, but centered on the personal story of veteran Jim Markel Sr., who, along with his son, decided to revisit a place that had haunted him for 45 years.
The 90-minute film screens at this year’s Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. It was created over the course of six years with 125 hours of footage shot both in Billings and multiple locations in Vietnam. The film’s verite style — no talking heads, narration or interview questions — provides an intimate portrait of post-traumatic stress disorder and also explores themes of family, aging, forgiveness and redemption.
Tolton and Parker were friends with Markel’s son, Jim Markel Jr., before the film was even contemplated. All three sometimes worked on video projects together, and Markel Jr. often pitched ideas to the other two. One day he called the filmmakers with something more personal. He said his dad, who often had a hard time talking about the Vietnam War, was starting to open up.
“He said [his dad] was talking about Vietnam in a different way,” Parker said. “Like, maybe he was ready to go back. And that maybe it would be a good story to tell, that we could come along with them. And, I don’t know, I could just really hear how important it was to Jim Jr. in his voice.”
It was 2016 and Parker wasn’t living in Billings at the time, so Tolton met with Markel Sr. to see if there was a story the filmmakers wanted to pursue. Tolton recalls that the veteran seemed to hold back at first, but the hour-and-45-minute interview revealed more than Tolton had expected.
“In that first interview, I was just hoping to get a lay of the land,” Tolton said. “But it seemed that I was asking him questions that almost no one had asked him before. Not that my questions were special, but that it’s endemic to this situation. We all get in a habit of nondisclosure. And so when someone finally is asked, ‘What did you do in the war? How have you lived with that? What kind of a father were you?’ it can be a pretty magical and forthcoming experience.”
Like many war veterans, Markel Sr. had buried his memories and walled off his emotions. He’d spent a lot of his post-war life drinking. And though he had started to talk with his son about his experiences, it was still emotionally raw, uncharted territory. But the way he opened up in the interview solidified for the filmmakers that his story had promise.
“It all kind of came out,” Tolton said. “I was like, ‘Oh wow, there is something to look forward to here. He’s carrying something heavy. He’s going through a transformation right now, and this is a really special season of his life to capture. And so I just kind of clung on and didn’t let go.”
Markel Sr. suffers from PTSD, but as the documentary unfolds, two major causes of guilt emerge. The Vietnamese mountain people who fought alongside him during the war “as brothers” were left to be slaughtered by the Viet Cong when the U.S. pulled out of the country — and Markel Sr. had never gotten over it.
“We were supposed to pull them out and we abandoned them,” Markel Sr. says more than once in the film.
Second, his guilt over being an absent father during the war — and a broken one afterward — surfaces throughout the film. In many ways, the documentary is an excavation of his pain in a search for healing. As a man of few words, Markel Sr.’s surrender to facing his past is nuanced, and poignant.
The filmmakers and the two Markels spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2018. “Return” captures their time in Saigon, where they team up with translator and guide Nguyễn Vinh and camera operator Trần Hồng Quang, who are both credited in the film as “lifesavers.”
Behind the camera, Tolton and Parker said, they had some transformative experiences in a city that seemed in constant motion with sidewalk karaoke, steamy pots of pho, smoke and dynamic conversation. Riding on the backs of scooters during rush hour was transcendental for Parker.
“I felt like I was part of a school of fish,” he said.
The film follows the team across the landscape through villages and sites Markel Sr. remembers from the war, where they meet and share food and conversation with a variety of people, some of whom had their own traumas that lasted years after the U.S. military left the country.
Despite the gravity inherent to a film dealing with PTSD and the Vietnam War, “Return” deploys a warm and hopeful tone. “It’s a homecoming,” Tolton said.
And that hopeful feeling is something both filmmakers emphasize. On the trip, Markel Sr. struggles with his physical health, but viewers can see how his return marks a positive shift in his mental health.
“Return” includes some footage from the war and old photos of Jim Markel Sr., but for the most part Tolton and Parker steered away from a deep dive or commentary on the war.
For their own purposes, the duo consumed plenty of material to inform their project. They watched the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series “The Vietnam War,” met with veterans to hear their stories and read classic books like “The Things They Carried” and “On Killing.” Tolton spent most of his research time wading through television news footage from the era to understand the political climate, propaganda and social tensions Markel Sr. would have experienced when he came home from the war. Almost none of that background research made it into the film, but it inspired the filmmakers’ approach.
“We decided the most valuable contribution we could make to the field, and the thing that was most true to our subjects, was to focus on that deeply personal narrative,” Parker said. “What war does to relationships, both within a family and within the camaraderie among soldiers, including our allies that were left behind over there.”
Tolton said the communication tools and experience he now has, which helped him begin that first conversation with Markel Sr., are tools he wishes he’d had when his grandfather — a World War II veteran — was alive. “Return,” he hoped, will inspire families to have long-overdue conversations.
“It’s hard to disclose these things about yourself that are often very deep under sadness or hardship or shame,” Tolton said. “It’s also really hard to ask the questions when you’ve floated along in relative comfort not asking for so many years. I really hope people see this and find it in themselves to take that leap.”
“Return” screens at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 5:30 p.m., at the Wilma Theater in Missoula, followed by a discussion with the filmmakers.
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