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Regret to Inform

Perspective is everything in the Oscar-nominated docu "Regret to Inform." Instead of again chronicling American losses in Vietnam, Barbara Sonneborn, herself a war widow, expands the debate to include her North and South Vietnamese sisters. The new voices put American losses in context and add a near-shattering resonance rare in nonfiction accounts.

Perspective is everything in the Oscar-nominated docu “Regret to Inform.” Instead of again chronicling American losses in Vietnam, Barbara Sonneborn, herself a war widow, expands the debate to include her North and South Vietnamese sisters. The new voices put American losses in context and add a near-shattering resonance rare in nonfiction accounts. Happily, Academy consideration will ensure a wider market for decade-in-the-making study, which was obviously a deeply personal ordeal for first-time helmer Sonneborn.

The 20th anniversary of husband Jeff’s death by mortar fire causes Sonneborn to ponder “unanswered questions” about circumstances surrounding his death in no-fly zone. Jeff himself, heard on audiotape, is fatalistic near the end and beginning to question U.S. treatment of the Vietnamese. For fuller picture, Sonneborn, a San Francisco multimedia artist, interviewed other widows and traveled to Vietnam with translator Xuan Ngoc Evans, whose survival guilt and firsthand memories of dodging bombs are among pic’s most vivid moments.

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Other accounts come from the widow of a Navajo infantryman (who felt a kinship with the Vietnamese) and the widow of a Navy pilot (who thought of smashing her husband’s hand to keep him from shipping out). Latter stands before a painstakingly maintained shrine to her dead husband. Both stress that their husbands volunteered out of a sense of “patriotic duty.”

What comes through loud and clear is the extent of damage done to the psyches of these women and how little closure they’ve found. Like vets suffering Delayed Stress Syndrome, many are still haunted by news of their spouse’s death and exhibit anger over being robbed of their youths.

But however difficult life remains for American widows, their stories are nowhere near as horrifying as those told by North and South Vietnamese women who experienced the war daily. One woman talks of hiding under corpses: “If you weren’t dead, you weren’t safe. Everything that moved was murdered.” Another woman remembers being tortured for spying. “The cruelty we endured was longer than a river,” she says. A pediatrician who lost her husband talks of studying the effects of the defoliant Agent Orange on children.

To those Americans who complain of their losses, an elderly Vietnamese woman inquires, with no little sarcasm, “Do the sons and daughters ask in America, ‘Why did father not come home?’ ” Cumulative effect of superbly integrated interviews and archival footage is staggering, easily as terrifying as anything found in “Saving Private Ryan.” Sonneborn’s voiceover narration is spare, dispassionate. She wisely allows the ravaged faces and grainy footage of dead children to speak for themselves. What they’re saying is, “Let the healing begin.”

Regret to Inform

Production: A Sun Fountain production. Produced by Barbara Sonneborn, Janet Cole. Executive producer, Cole. Directed, written by Barbara Sonneborn.

Crew: Camera (color), Daniel Reeves, Nancy Schiesari, Emiko Omori (Vietnam); editors, Lucy Massie Phenix, Ken Schneider; music, Todd Boekelheide; sound, Julie Konop, Elizabeth Thompson; translator, Xuan Ngoc Evans; senior associate producer, Todd Wagner; associate producers, Megan Jones, Kathy Brew, Daniel Reeves. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 1999. Running time: 72 MIN.

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