ÖEven love of country is not
deeper than the love we have togetherÖ
The first words from Barbara
Sonnebornís Regret to Inform, sung by a Vietnamese war
widow, perfectly characterize this 1998 Oscar nominee for Best
Documentary. Centered around the filmmakerís journey to Vietnam
twenty years after an enemy mortar killed her husband, Regret
to Inform shares the stories of American and Vietnamese
women who lost loved ones to the war.
The cruelty that we experienced
was longer than a river, higher than a mountain, deeper than
The most compelling elements
of Regret to Inform are the views from both sides of
the struggle. Dozens of women convey their loss, their grief,
their confusion. While the American women were alone and uncertain,
sometimes for years, of their companionsí fates, the Vietnamese
women were dealing with the same emotions as well as the war
in their own villages. Many had to deal not only with loss of
family and loved ones, but also with torture at the hands of
the South Vietnamese army. Sonnebornís companion on her journey,
Xuan Ngoc Nguyen, also lost her husband in the Vietnam War and
subsequently married an American soldier and returned with him
to the US. Nguyenís experiences during the war as a child, widow
and prostitute and after as an unwanted bride in the "enemyís"
country provide a fascinating counterbalance to Sonnebornís
and the two epitomize the experiences shared by all of the women
in the film.
What does it look like when
someone you love is hit by a mortar?
The interviews segments in Regret
to Inform are done extremely well. While we never hear Sonnebornís
questions, the narratives elicited from all of the participants
are absolutely engrossing. There is no hint of any attempt by
the director to draw out particular emotions or excite any passions.
Never simply sobbing that they miss their husbands, Sonneborn
and several of the women interviewed on both sides question
not only their own personal loss, but also larger issues such
as the validity of Americaís presence in Vietnam. They ask themselves
the most difficult of questions; what their husbands felt when
they died and what they felt when they killed.
Compared to the other stories
shared in Regret to Inform, Sonnebornís own narrative
seemed somewhat detached and I was never certain if she achieved
any real closure upon her visit to the location where her husband
had died. It seems as though an answer is not that simple, as
Sonneborn states "what haunted me wasn't that Jeff died
here, but that he had to be a part of this at all."
Sometimes the effects of a
war donít happen right away. It isnít just the war is [in Vietnam]
and itís over Ė it starts when it ends.
Regret to Inform also
follows the stories of several soldiers who survived the combat,
but were felled by Agent Orange and the terror of flashbacks.
Sonneborn recounts the tale of one woman she met at the Vietnam
Veterans Memorial wall: "My husbandís name should be on
the wall," she says. "He left his soul in Vietnam. It took his
body seven years to catch up. He went out in the garage and
shot himself. He left a note that said, ĎI love you sweetheart,
but I just can't take the flashbacks anymore.í"
When I was young I had hatred
in order to defend my country and my people. Now there are not
many days left in my life, and there is peace, I can see that
we are all the same, people there and people here.
Regret to Inform is a
marvelous film in that, moving past the horrors of war, both
physical and emotional, Sonnebornís story and all of those her
film captures reveal that the mutual loss between all involved
ultimately leads to a shared understanding.
The Regret to Inform DVD
features the POV interview with Barbara Sonneborn, the filmmakerís
photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer, crew biographies
and a map of key sites of the Vietnam War.
Mark A. Nichols