REGRET TO INFORM

Directed by Barbara Sonneborn

Distributed by Artistic License Films

***1/2

Opens in New York May 25th.


As she embarks on a train ride to the Vietnamese town where her husband was killed 25 years ago, director Barbara Sonneborn declares that "Vietnam is the land of my imagination." This has been the case for just about every other American filmmaker who's touched on the subject. (Robert Kramer, whose 1993 documentary STARTING PLACE shares some points of contact with REGRET TO INFORM, is a major exception.) As great as APOCALYPSE NOW and FULL METAL JACKET are, both largely reduce the Vietnamese to phantom presences who pop up only to kill or be killed. Although Tony Bui is a Vietnamese immigrant himself, his THREE SEASONS reduces the country to a set of picture postcards packaged for white Americans' consumption. One realizes that this will be a different kind of Vietnam War film when Sonneborn goes on to say that "Vietnam is the land of memory" for Xuan Ngoc Evans, a Vietnamese widow who accompanies her as a translator. Although hardly a pleasant night at the movies, it's a powerful cautionary tale about war's devastating long-term consequences, and it should be required viewing for anyone who blames DOOM and Marilyn Manson for inciting violence while cheering on the itchy trigger finger of Bill Clinton and NATO.

REGRET TO INFORM is a testimony to the power of memory and imagination. While Sonneborn films her own journey, she intercuts interviews with American and Vietnamese women who lost their husbands to the war, shot in a fairly conventional talking-heads style, as well as a great deal of archival footage. (Unlike most contemporary documentaries, this is a real film, not a blown-up video.) Although the interviews themselves are quite moving, Lucy Massie Phenix's skillful editing gives the film a great deal more nuance than the typical PBS or History Channel documentary. (PBS did produce it, although I don't know when they'll be airing it.) The historical footage isn't just used to provide background information or to fill in gaps; they illustrate and illuminate the points made by Sonneborn and her subjects. Her inclusion of footage of present-day Vietnam, shot along her travels, adds another layer of complexity. She creates a particularly haunting image by superimposing of a diagram of her husband's wounds onto a serene landscape outside her train's window. This juxtaposition of images of past brutality and present-day calm recalls Alain Resnais' landmark Holocaust documentary NIGHT AND FOG, although REGRET TO INFORM certainly isn't in its league.

While the Vietnamese women recall harrowing stories of torture and murder, their American counterparts experienced the horror of war from a distance. As a result, they wound up alienated from their mates' experiences. One recalls that her husband found it impossible to describe his true feelings in writing and therefore restricted his correspondence to the trivialities of everyday life. Sonneborn herself speaks about the difficulty of understanding what Jeff went through, suggesting that she's undertaken this trip largely as an attempt to break through that barrier. This possibility may have come too late, but it's a necessary catharsis. As one widow suggests, the war didn't end when American soldiers came home. The mental and physical scars it created are still wreaking havoc on their lives. (Several of them break down in tears on camera.) The parallel predicaments of the American and Vietnamese widows seem even more tragic when one keeps in mind that their husbands could well have killed each other.

Although REGRET TO INFORM was nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary category last spring, Academy voters bypassed it, rewarding Roberto Benigni instead for his far more evasive evocation of personal and social tragedy . The past Sonneborn describes is a slaughterhouse, the present full of sorrow and loss, but the future still holds out the possibility that we might one day be able to recognize what we have in common with "the Other." On paper, that might sound like a facile platitude, but her film communicates it with gale force.