Examining the indelible scars of the war 30 years on, indie filmmaker Beth B travels to Vietnam with three American veterans and their adult children to bear witness as they attempt to reconcile with the past in “Breathe In Breathe Out.” An intimate, often moving journey, the docu feels somewhat encumbered by an excess of pop psychology about finding a point of recovery where healing can begin. But while this at times distracts from the emotional responses of the soldiers and their families to the experience, those responses have sufficient impact to make this a powerful assessment of the legacy of war. The film should make a strong pubcaster entry.
Dedicated to all those affected by the trauma of war, past and present, the film smoothly mixes one-on-one interviews with footage from the trip as the group revisits jungle trails, cities, war memorials, temples and villages whose populations they had a hand in erasing. The experience proves both confronting and revelatory.
The subjects talk about the anxiety and anger they brought home to their families, as well as the shame and guilt of survival, causing psychological damage that the facilities for Vietnam vets at that time were unequipped to deal with. Their children discuss their resentment of the war, the feeling that it stole something from their fathers, who succumbed to bouts of alcoholism, violence and depression.
Former army medic Jose G. Ramos is especially articulate about the fallout from the war on his life, on that of his family and of other soldiers, how it affected their beliefs about society, religion and spirituality, and their ability to show emotion and affection in a normal, healthy way.
Title comes from a Buddhist meditation, recited by one of the soldiers’ sons, designed to acknowledge, accept and account for damage done in the past and to work toward a more positive present and future.
This in a sense sums up the emotional-and-psychological-maintenance function of the piece, both for its participants and for other war veterans. But while there’s no doubting the sincerity and curative value of the exercise, the talk-heavy therapy becomes somewhat numbing and repetitive. As a result, one of the most refreshingly honest aspects of the film is the director’s refusal to hide the distance of one soldier’s stepson from the process. While everyone else is busy processing their feelings, he remains obliviously plugged into his personal stereo.