In 1968, on her 24th birthday, Barbara Sonneborn received word that her husband, Jeff, had been killed in Vietnam while trying to rescue his wounded radio operator during a mortar attack. “We regret to inform you…” began the telegram that arrived. Twenty years later, Sonneborn, a photographer and visual artist, set out on a search for the truth about war and its legacy. The result is a moving examination of the impact of war over time, eloquently chronicled in her debut documentary Regret to Inform.
The film follows Sonneborn’s journey to Khe Sahn, where Jeff was killed, and weaves together the stories of widows from both sides of the American-Vietnam war. According to the New York Times, Regret to Inform is “so exquisitely filmed, edited and scored it is the documentary equivalent of a tragic epic poem. Every word and image quivers with an anguished resonance.”
The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won the Best Director and Best Cinematography Documentary awards at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
When Sonneborn began this project in 1988, she had met only one other American war widow. Propelled by a desire to meet other women who had experienced the same loss on both sides of the war, and to understand what could be learned about war through their stories, Sonneborn put together a production team in 1990 and sent out several thousand letters searching for widows in the U.S. The women were difficult to find.
With the help of many Vietnam war veterans, the press, and other survivors as she found them, Sonneborn spoke with more than 200 American widows during pre-production for the film. “Many of these widows — as well as the veterans and children of soldiers killed in the war – shared their experiences in ways they couldn’t before,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by how the suffering from the war continued.”
In 1992, Sonneborn traveled to Vietnam, accompanied by Nguyen Ngoc Xuan, a South Vietnamese woman whose first husband was killed in the war fighting for South Vietnam. Xuan later married an American soldier and moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s. She agreed to serve as Sonneborn’s translator on the trip and to share her own story in the film. On their journey through Vietnam — where some 2 to 3 million people were killed during the war — they found that everyone had a story to share about loss and devastation from the war. “[The women in Vietnam] were quite surprised and very moved that an American widow wanted to hear their stories,” Sonneborn recalls. “The women recounted in painful detail the human and environmental damage caused by what they call the American war in Vietnam.” One woman in the film describes, “The cruelty we experienced was longer than a river, higher than a mountain, deeper than an ocean.” Another adds, “If you weren’t dead, you weren’t safe.”
In Regret to Inform, widows from both sides speak out, putting a human face on the all-too-often overlooked casualties of armed conflict: those who remain in the war’s aftermath. Intercut with beautiful scenes of the serene Vietnamese countryside and shocking archival footage from the war years, the women’s voices form an eloquent international chorus calling for peace. Regret to Inform is a powerful meditation on loss and the devastation of all war on a personal level. It is a love story, and a deeply moving testament to the healing power of compassion.
“Making this film has been Jeff’s gift to me,” sums up Sonneborn. “It has expanded my understanding of sorrow and suffering, of love and joy. I want people to see war differently than they’ve seen it before. I want them to look war in the face and ask themselves, ‘Am I going to allow this to happen ever again?’ I want people to so deeply realize the humanity of other human beings that they won’t be able to kill them.”