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Thirty years after the death of her husband in the
Viet Nam war, Barbara Sonneborn creates a tribute to his memory in a documentary film, Regret
to Inform. It would be easy for the sophisticated viewer to glibly label Regret to
Inform an antiwar tract, but an implicit point of the film is that we need all the
antiwar tracts we can get. And "tract" somehow doesn't allow for the sincerity
that infuses the film and the genuinely felt emotions expressed.
Sonneborn loosely structures the
movie on a journey she took to Que Son, where her husband was killed. Repeated shots of
her and her interpreter on a train running through the Vietnamese countryside are
interspersed with talking heads of both American and Vietnamese widows reflecting on their
losses and their husbands' lives. There is stunningly beautiful footage of the landscape:
craggy mountains with that particularly Asian profile - like Chinese watercolors -
shrouded in haze from the steamy humidity; a large bamboo water wheel on the side of a
river; impossibly green rice fields with borders of palms; the oar of a boat sluicing
through brownish water. There are glimpses of poor rural villages and urban scenes as
well. Sonneborn also uses a good deal of carefully selected stock footage from the war
itself - tanks, helicopters, bombers, bombing, fire, disfigurement, and death.
The film is not an unqualified
triumph. The war scenes, real and occasionally horrifying as they may be, seem almost
antiseptic, distanced, missing the grittily intense impact they should have. (Have we
become too jaded by Spielberg and Coppola and Malick?) And Sonneborn herself remains
coolly aloof, her own commentary carefully underplayed. When she arrives in Que Son, the
event itself seems anticlimactic, of more intrinsic interest to her personally than any
point it makes for the movie. Indeed, her own monologue on reaching the area where her
husband was killed offers only rather banal cliches; it detracts, rather than adds to her
The achievement is in the statements
garnered from the widows on both sides. These women speak from their hearts and their
honesty fills the screen. Some are more articulate than others, as would be expected, but
each adds a dimension to understanding the pain and suffering that the war brought, pain
and suffering that does not go away. "Nothing is black or white. It's all gray, just
like the smoke [of burning houses]," one woman says. Another expresses the social
constraint, "Vietnamese women are not supposed to cry." But, in the end, a woman
who has been through extreme loss and degradation, anguishes: "I am ashamed to cry.
What makes my pain greater than my neighbors'?"
- Arthur Lazere ... .