In the Spring of 2018, a team of Montana filmmakers accompanied Green Beret Jim Markel Sr. and his son Jim Markel Jr. on a trip to Vietnam. The experience is at the heart of a new documentary, "Return" which tells the story of the Montana veteran's first time returning to Vietnam since the war.

We spoke with the film's director, Peter Tolton, about the film and its purpose. The idea that this was a father-son journey was significant to the film. Tolton explained that for Markel Jr., "It was a chance to retrace his father's footsteps [and] understand kind of this mysterious part of his life, which also gave birth to some issues in the family and some weight that Jim Markel Sr. carried for a long time."

Part of the film's intent was to examine not only themes of mental health, but also divisions between family members, according to Tolton. "Part of solving that and or, you know, treating that together involves seeking out the mountain tribes that Jim Sr. served with as a Green Beret lived with."

Tolton goes on to explain, "Like many special forces who were embedded with indigenous populations fighting against the North Vietnamese armies and Vietcong, he was forced to abandon his kin there. And so tugging at that thread was really important for [Jim Sr.], and doing it together really ended up becoming the heart of the story for these two men who, as I understand, they've had a challenging and complex relationship for decades. I think it's a little easier for them now."

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The film is nominated for the Big Sky Spirit Award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, an award for films that represent the spirit of the west, which Tolton acknowledges is an abstraction, but seems fitting for this film. "The American West was built on extraction, adventure, broken promises to indigenous locals violence, you know, kind of the sort of existence on the edge of the white, Western world. And so I think in the late 60s and early 70s, those themes are absolutely at play in the Vietnam conflict and totally internalized by many military veterans who served there," Tolton said.

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For those who might find the subject matter challenging, know that this is a story that's as much about triumph and the journey as it is about the heavier subjects.

"I don't want to spoil the ending, but it does end well," Tolton says, with a tone of earnestness. "And it is it does feel like a triumph. So this isn't one of those documentaries that you feel like you're going to go in for 90 minutes of hard work for head and heart. There's some work in it, but I think it's entertaining and fun."

"Return" will premier on Sunday, February 19 at 5:30 pm at the Wilma Theater. Tickets can be purchased through the film festival website.

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