Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Regret to Inform

By Marc Savlov

AUGUST 23, 1999: 

D: Barbara Sonneborn; with Sonneborn, April Burns, Lula Bia, Xuan Ngoc Evans, Norma Banks, Phan Ngoc Dung, Charlotte Begay, Tran Nghia. (Not Rated, 72 min.)

Filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn takes a unique and personal tack in this examination of the Vietnam conflict and the national scars that still fester. On February 29, 1968, she received that dreaded knock on the door with the grim news that her husband Jeff, a U.S. serviceman stationed in Que Sanh, was dead. Twenty-five years after her life was shattered by an armed conflict never even fully recognized as an official American war, Sonneborn traveled to the killing fields with a film crew and retraced her husband's final days. What she found was a beautiful land still throbbing with unresolved issues of war, terror, and hopelessness. Although by this time she had long since remarried and moved on with her life, Sonneborn (who otherwise makes her living as a professional photographer) felt the need to connect, physically, with the place of her husband's death. In a curiously flat, listless voiceover that runs throughout the film, Sonneborn wonders "What was Jeff thinking? What did he feel?" Questions every grieving war parent/spouse asks, but here brought to us on a much more personal level. Once in-country, Sonneborn sets herself up with a Vietnamese translator (Evans) who also suffered through the war. While much of the film is composed of interviews with American or Vietnamese war widows, Evans, who was only 14 at the time, ended up prostituting herself to American G.I.s to help her family keep food on the table. In the film's most harrowing passage, she graphically recounts how she watched her younger brother explode in a hail of U.S. Army-issue bullets as a trigger-happy G.I., panicked by the boy's sudden movement, shot him to death from only a few feet away. There are precious few moments in Sonneborn's film that don't echo with unspeakable heartbreak. The only counterpoint to the grim reality of loss is the rapturously gorgeous shots of the modern Vietnamese countryside, unspeakably lush and verdant and breathtakingly alive. Sonneborn has captured the horror of the Vietnam conflict from an angle as yet unexplored, that of the women left behind. It's a powerful, disturbing, exquisitely crafted journey back to a place few people would have the courage to return, though Sonneborn throughout the film remains undaunted. Regret to Inform is a scathing antiwar diatribe as shocking as it is visually engrossing. Alongside the tearful widows, she paints a picture of Vietnam as a hallowed battleground, the victim of 500 years of war and occupation, a place of lush jungles and amazingly green vegetation fed by rivers of blood and suffering. Wrenching in an intensely personal way, this is documentary filmmaking at its spellbinding best.

4 Stars


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