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Docurama presents
Regret to Inform (1998)

"So this is the place. After years of imagining it, it's so ordinary. This is where you died, Jeff. So scared, so young, so far away from home."
- Barbara Sonneborne

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: December 13, 2001

Stars: Barbara Sonneborn, Xuan Ngoc Nguyen
Director: Barbara Sonneborn

Manufacturer: Nimbus
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (War footage, themes)
Run Time: 01h:12m:13s
Release Date: May 02, 2000
UPC: 767685945537
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

"For years, I had tried to put the war behind me. One morning, the twentieth anniversary of his death, I woke up, and I knew I had to go to Vietnam. I didn't know what I'd find there, I just knew I had to go." - Barbara Sonneborne

It was a conflict that had been brewing since the Truman and Eisenhower administrations of the 1950s. The threat of communist advancement in Southeast Asia had steered US foreign policy to an increasing presence in Vietnam. The Kennedy administration had sent 16,000 special services forces to train South Vietnamese resistance forces, but following Kennedy's assassination, and with the passing of Tonkin Gulf resolution on August 7, 1964, the Johnson administration increased the US presence by first carpet bombing North Vietnam, then with ground combat troups landing in March of 1965. In all nearly 900,000 Americans served in Vietnam, and by the time the US withdrew in 1975 after the fall of Saigon, 150,000 Americans would have returned wounded, and 60,000 had lost their lives. Jeff Sonneborn was one of them. Jeff's wife, Barbara (then 24) had been one of thousands to receive the notice, opening with "We regret to inform..." This is the story of her journey, over twenty years later, to the land that claimed her husband.

"The same unanswered questions that drew me to Vietnam, made me want to meet other women who had lost their husbands as I had. Maybe by hearing their stories, I could understand my own more deeply." - Barbara Sonneborne

Though it was never officially a "war," the impact of US involvement in Vietnam had its casualties on the innocent at home and abroad. Four students were killed by the National Guard at Kent State University as the anti-war movement grew to unprecedented proportions at home and amongst combat troops over seas. Of course, Americans were not the only ones to suffer losses in the conflict. The Vietnamese had lost over one million people, including 350,000 civilians. As a war widow, Barbara began to wonder how other women felt, those who had lost their loved ones, and those who had war waged in their own backyard. Along the way to Que Son, the place her husband was killed in a mortar attack, she would interview dozens of American and Vietnamese women, to learn how war affects those who survive it. The stories told here are not pleasant, they reflect ultimate loss experienced by those involved in the process of war.

"Sometimes, you [are] ashamed to cry, because what makes my pain greater than my neighbor['s]." - Xuan Ngoc Nguyen

These recollections are filled with intense emotion, and this is definitely not an easy watch. Even twenty years later, the pain is still present, the memories still haunting. Barbara's Vietnamese traveling companion, Xuan Ngoc Nguyen, who was fourteen at the time, relays watching her five-year-old cousin being blown apart by American gunfire while fetching a drink of water, and how she married an American after living through the war is interweaved with the tales from others. One woman reads letters from her husband overseas, questioning his involvement in war, after enlisting following a moral obligation to his father and grandfather who had both served in the World Wars. Another woman tells of the torture she endured when captured by American forces. The stories are not only of those who died in conflict, but of those who died later, either as a result of the extensive use of the defoliant Agent Orange which the US deployed, or as a result of the psychological impact of the attrocities encountered, which led many returning soldiers to suicide.

The documentary also shows Vietnam as it is today, a country still coping with its war torn past, but one that is trying to come to terms and understand the events it has been subject to. Sonneborn is escorted to the site of the battle that claimed her husband by an ex-Viet Kong resistance fighter, who shares her stories as a militant and later prisoner of war.

Regret To Inform won seven major awards, ans was nominated for an Oscar ® for Best Documentary. Its narrative makes the journey using archival combat footage and beautiful and majestic views of modern Vietnam bridging the interview footage which makes up the heart of this emotionally challenging film. It is an experience that will be hard to forget. Its message is not condemning of US involvement in Vietnam, but it does question whether there can be any justification for the inhumanity of warfare. It carries a very powerful message that should not be overlooked.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Video quality is variable depending on the source for the footage. Archival material is often grainy, with somewhat muted coloring. Interview footage and modern sequences are shot on video, so often have visible haloing on highly contrasted areas and some aliasing, but otherwise are stunning in their vibrancy and detail, with solid black levels.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Stereo audio is well presented, with the film's modest score occupying the extremes of the soundstage, and the sombre commentary taking the center channel. Dialogue is clear and easily discernable, and frequency range is well represented and evenly balanced.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring Don't Look Back, Dancemaker
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Interview with director Barbara Sonneborn
  2. Photo gallery
Extras Review: "My hope was to develop compassion that is large enough to make us think about whether we want to make war." - Barbara Sonneborn

P.O.V. Behind the Lens is a short promotional piece outlining the reasons behind making Regret To Inform, with interview footage of Barbara Sonneborn.

A 14-image photo gallery contains a collection of pictures taken by director Barbara Sonneborn during the making of the film.

an interactive map (duplicated as a static image on the insert) shows some of the places mentioned in the film, and those of significance to the Vietnam war.

Biographies for the crew are also included as single screen essays, as is information on the Widows of War Living Memorial website, along with web links for sites related to Regret To Inform.

Finally, the film's theatrical trailer, plus previews for Docurama releases, Bob Dylan's Don't Look Back and Paul Taylor's Dancemaker are also included.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

Of all the films I've seen in my lifetime, Regret To Inform was one of the most deeply painful I have ever encountered. I could not help but be overcome by the loss and emotional devastation in the eyes of the women interviewed in this film. Through a collection of images from the Vietnam war and the stories of those who survived it, the senselessness of man's inhumanity to man is brought forward in the immensely powerful and poignant documentary, told through the eyes of the women who lost husbands. The true casualties of our continued conflicts between opposing ideologies and over imaginary lines on a map cannot be consigned to a wall, or forgotten in photo albums and newsreels from bygone eras. It is only by learning from our past that we can avoid the irreparable suffering endured by those who survive. I believe this film should be required viewing for all students and adults alike. You may not be the same after viewing it, but its message can not—must not—be forgotten. Highly recommended.


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