they will mean what you make them.”—Regret to Inform
“The terrible price of that nobility is one that
nobody should have to pay”—Barbara Sonneborn
In 1968, the director Barbara Sonneborn was informed that her husband, Jeff Gurvitz, had been killed in a mortar attack in Vietnam. The words “We regret to inform you” appeared on the telegram, and the message arrived on her 24th birthday. Sonneborn is the director, writer, and producer of the notable documentary film Regret to Inform. Although she remarried and has a lovely new life, she was haunted by the lost of her beloved husband and had strong, begrudging feelings about the war. After twenty years, on the date of Jeff’s death anniversary, she decided to follow her ex-husband’s footsteps in Vietnam and film a documentary about the influence of the Vietnam War on American and Vietnamese women. Through the film, the memory of the loss is relived by her again. This film was an Academy Award nominee in 1998, and won the Independent Spirit Award in 1999. It also won Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Feature Documentary awards at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999, and several others prestigious awards.1 The Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indo-China War, is also called the American War by the Vietnamese. It had its beginnings in 1957, subsequent escalation in 1960, and finally ended in 1975. The war was fought between the North Vietnamese government and US-supported South Vietnam. It concluded with the defeat and dissolution of South Vietnam. A total of 1,230,000 Vietnamese died in the conflict, and 330,000 people were reported missing. On the American side, a total of 58,209 Americans died, and about 2,000 American were missing in action and never accounted for.2 A critic from the New York Times Magazine stated, “Every documentary film has an agenda, and the interviews that make up the bulk of Regret to Inform add up to a damning indictment of war in general and in particular the Vietnam War, which it portrays (without actually coming out and saying it) as a disastrous miscalculation.”3 Elsewhere, Anthony McCosham wrote of Regret to Inform: “A common complaint about filmic representations of the Vietnam war, particularly those produced in Hollywood, is that the films tend to focus too narrowly on the personal relationships of the characters involved, ignoring not only the political context of the war but also the viewpoint of its Vietnamese participants.” 4 McCosham criticized commercial films of the Vietnamese War without reservation, and at the same time he pointed out that Regret to inform presented a key point, the women’s point of view. Moreover, Lindsay Anderson commented that Regret to Inform shows the personal truth about war, and one comes away with the conviction that the only way to really understand war is on this personal, experiential level. No one who really knows this truth can ever mouth platitudes about glory and honor in war again, or advocate the necessity of war without a grave and conscientious acknowledgment of its devastating cost.5 This critique enhances Regret to Inform’s argument and appeal against the war. In other words, the commentator also provides a sincere advice for the people who have ever been to the war because only the people who really came through from the war can really understand its destructive influence. Sonneborn’s Regret to Inform is a documentary that argues against war by presenting the personal stories and grief experienced by women on both sides of the conflict. She focuses on women, unlike so many other war films, and provides a uniquely feminist take on the Vietnam War. She effectively employs interviews, letters home, Jeff’s notification, Jeff’s reflection, music, and historical portraits to convince the audiences to rethink their support of war. In the beginning of Regret to Inform, Sonneborn introduced herself to the viewers and gives the reason for her journey...