REGRET TO INFORM

A Film by Barbara Sonneborn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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"My young husband came home from the war in Vietnam in a flag-draped casket.  For those soldiers who made it home alive, many were greeted by America's rage.  "Baby killers" was shouted at them.   Rotten tomatoes were hurled at them.  I had to ask, what did Jeff die for?  This question haunted my days and nights.  I knew I had to transform his death into as powerful a statement against war as I could.

 

The result is Regret To Inform, a film offering hope for

healing and reconciliation as we enter the new millennium. 

Vietnam is the vehicle for the story, but it is about all war."

                                                                                                - Barbara Sonneborn

 

 

SYNOPSIS

 

Regret to Inform portrays the lasting devastation of war through the eyes of women.  Interweaving archival footage and photographs with present-day images, Regret to Inform tells stories of love cut short and the lasting effects of war on the people left behind.

 

On her 24th birthday, Barbara Sonneborn received word that her husband, Jeff, had been killed in Vietnam.  They had been sweethearts since she was fourteen.  Twenty years after her husband was killed, Sonneborn embarks on a journey through the country where he fought and died.  Woven into her personal odyssey are interviews with American and Vietnamese widows, from both sides of the conflict, who speak openly about the men they loved and how war changed their lives forever.

 

What started out as a letter to her late husband over ten years ago has become a public statement on the personal toll of war.  Accompanying Barbara Sonneborn on her journey is Xuan Ngoc Evans, a South Vietnamese widow.  Evans and the many other widows interviewed illuminate the horrors of war for all those who have only imagined what it was like in Vietnam. 

 

Deeply personal yet vastly universal, Regret to Inform gives human faces to the nameless casualties of war.

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

 

 

On January 1, 1968, Barbara Sonneborn's husband, Jeff Gurvitz, left to fight in the Vietnam War.  Eight weeks later, on February 29, 1968, he crawled out of a foxhole during a mortar attack to rescue his radio operator and was killed.  Sonneborn learned of her husband's death on her 24th birthday.  "We regret to inform you..." read the official notice.  When his personal effects were returned three months later, his dog tags and wedding ring were encrusted with his own blood.

 

The shock and grief eased with the years, but not the anger.  On January 1, 1988, twenty years after Jeff's death, Sonneborn woke up suddenly determined to do something about his death in the Vietnam War.  She began to write Jeff a heart wrenching letter to tell him the impact that his death had on her life.  She recalls the night before he left, writing, "You were so alive, so filled, filled with life... How could you not come back?"  This on-going letter is the narrative thread of Regret to Inform. 

 

In all those years Sonneborn had met only one other Vietnam War widow.  She knew that she wanted to find other widows on both sides of the conflict, to understand how their husbands' deaths had shaped their lives.  What could be learned form these women's stories about war, loss, survival and healing after all these years?  Sonneborn knew she had to go to Vietnam to find the place where her husband was killed, and to talk to other widows.

 

Sonneborn reacted to her husbands' death with anguish, torment and many questions.  While there were organizations to help Vietnam veterans, there were no such networks for Vietnam widows.  And the unpopularity of that war further inhibited its victims from finding relief.  Although Sonneborn, an accomplished photographer and a visual artist, had never made a film before, she decided that this would be her medium.  Her documentary film Regret to Inform is both her response to her experience and the agent of her catharsis. 

 

In 1990, in preparation for her film, Sonneborn sent out thousands of letters, and suddenly got a lot of responses when the Gulf War began.  "A lot of people who had suffered deeply and personally as a result of the Vietnam War -- both veterans and widows -- came out of the woodwork and spoke out in ways many had found impossible until then," Sonneborn remembers.  Altogether, she interviewed over 200 women by phone and in short pre-production interviews, and another 43 in person, 25 of these in Vietnam. 

 

To finance the film, Sonneborn raised $275,000 through grants, individual contributions, loans, and finally by mortgaging her house.  In 1991, working with Vietnam veteran and video artist Daniel Reeves, she began shooting interviews in California.  It was now time for the next destination on her journey -- Vietnam.

 

After struggling with miles of red tape, with the mediation of Vietnam's sympathetic UN attaché, Sonneborn received an affirmative response from the Vietnam government in late 1991.  She and a five-member crew arrived in Bangkok in early 1992, only to find that the visas promised by her sponsor in Hanoi, the Ministry of Film, did not exist.  Her urgent plea again to the UN attaché cut through the last piece of red tape, and Sonneborn entered Vietnam to begin seven weeks of interviews and filming from North to South. 

 

The women Sonneborn interviewed were both North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front (Viet Cong).  (At that time it would have been dangerous for widows whose husbands died fighting for South Vietnam to speak out.)  "They couldn't believe that an American Vietnam War widow really wanted to hear their stories," she recalls.  They recounted the torture, murder, and incredible human damage caused by American bombs.  "The cruelty we experienced was longer than a river, higher than a mountain, deeper than an ocean," describes one woman in the film.  "If you weren't dead, you weren't safe," remembers another.

 

Xuan Ngoc Evans, who grew up in a poor South Vietnamese village in the 1950s but now lives in the U.S., was Sonneborn's translator.  In the film, she becomes a symbol of the many contradictions of the Vietnam War.  "For me," remembers Sonneborn, "Vietnam is the land of my imagination, but for Xuan, it is the land of memory."  In 1968, at the age of 14 Evans' home and village were destroyed.  Her husband was killed fighting for the South Vietnamese just three years later.  She actually witnessed her cousin blown apart by an American soldier.  "I woke up when I was 40 with all this memory, all this pain, all this anger," she told Sonneborn.  "What am I going to do with it?  When people decide to go to war, they don't ask people like me, What's going to happen?"  The irony of her translating for Sonneborn among North Vietnamese women, many of whom would have seen her as a collaborator, is not lost on the viewer.

 

Regret to Inform is made up of deeply personal on-camera interviews, exceptional archival footage, and Sonneborn's memoir-like narration.  When she finally reaches Que Sanh, the area where her husband died, Sonneborn is struck by the ordinariness of the once-ravaged landscape.  While the film's scenes of the Vietnamese countryside -- mist hovering over mountains, women toiling in rice paddies -- are eerie and mysterious, they're also quite serene.  "I was looking for the human and environmental effects," says Sonneborn.  And the film contains many such poignant moments.  An American war widow caressing the last letter she received from her husband, another woman talking about her husband who returned from the war only to die from the effects of Agent Orange.  "It's not like the war is here and then it's over," the woman explains.  "It starts when it ends."  Or as Sonneborn herself observes, "War is a monster.  You let it out of its cage and you can't tell it how to behave."

 

Back in the U.S., Sonneborn wrote grants to finish production in the States.  One of her aims was to include the perspective of Native American war widows.  "I was committed to including Native American women because the first war in this country was against the Native people.  More than 40% of the Native people who were eligible to serve did so.  The impact on their culture is enormous."  With the help of a grant from the Arizona Humanities Council, she took a five person production crew to the Navajo Nation.  In one of the film's most moving interview segments, a Navajo woman from Chinle, Arizona remarks, "...Once he saw all of the killing, ...the Vietnamese looking just like him, just about the same skin color, the same height, I think that it really made him think, what am I doing here?"  Sonneborn plans to use the extensive footage gathered in Arizona, as well as several interviews shot in Cambodia, in a subsequent film about war, healing, and reconciliation.

 

In 1995, Sonneborn began to cull a feature-length film from 80 hours of interviews, and 40 more hours of b-roll footage.  Sonneborn and two San Francisco area editors, Jennifer Chinlund and Vivien Hillgrove, worked it down to five hours but, by 1996, the film was still not finished.  There was no more money left so the editors had to move on to other projects.

 

Sonneborn borrowed more money and produced a 15 minute trailer in the style of the film, edited by Ken Schneider, in order to raise the money to finish the film.  Then, in 1997, Sonneborn brought on Janet Cole, a noted PBS producer experienced in social-issue filmmaking, to join the project.  "I needed somebody very experienced and very good to help me complete the film," remembers Sonneborn.  Cole recalls, "I was attracted by the potential of this film as a tool for social action and change."  She brought in award-winning filmmaker Lucy Massie Phenix to finish the editing.  "There is little consciousness of how sexist war is and of how women, as victims and as wives and mothers, are not taken into account," Phenix explains as she describes her focus.  "What I always kept in front of me was the question:  What is the war, and how deep and far does it reach?"

 

The project attracted other impressive talent.  Acclaimed cinematographer-director Emiko Omori was the cameraperson for the Vietnam scenes.  Cinematographer Nancy Schiesari, who shot award winning films in England for years, and video artist and Vietnam War veteran Daniel Reeves, shot the U.S. interviews.  Composer Todd Boekelheide composed the film's music.  PBS sound and picture editor Ken Schneider co-edited the film with Phenix.  Sonneborn insisted that the editing continue until the film was as visually poetic, and as clear a message about the toll of war as she could imagine.  Experimental filmmaker and "edit doctor" Nathaniel Dorsky was brought in at the end and cut another 15-20 minutes during the film's final polishing.  "The strength of the material and what it's meant to do is why so many good people worked on it," states Phenix.

 

Janet Cole's involvement also helped raise the $425,000 needed to complete the film.  This funding came from the MacArthur Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association (NAATA).  The final cost of the film was a relatively modest $700,000.

 

Regret to Inform has already won the IDA/ABC News VideoSource Award for its use of archival footage, has been screened at the DOCtober Festival in Los Angeles (which qualifies it for Academy Award consideration), and was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.  NAATA will act as the presenting organization for the film's public television broadcast.

 

In the process of making Regret to Inform, in seeing with her own eyes the suffering on both sides, Sonneborn's rage disappeared.  She hopes the film will bring healing and reconciliation for others.  "It has deepened me," she says.  "It has brought me to my knees and expanded my compassion and my understanding of sorrow and suffering and joy.  In the end it was a gift from my husband, Jeff.  For all the house mortgages and lost sleep and agony of editing, it was a great privilege to make this film and to meet all the people it's brought into my life."

 

This story was adapted in part from the article "Conscientious Objector:  Barbara Sonneborn Revisits the Vietnam War in Regret to Inform"  by Sura Wood, published in the December 1998/January 1999 issue of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation

 

 

 

CREW BIOGRAPHIES

 

 

Barbara Sonneborn, Producer/Director/Writer

 

Born in Chicago in 1944, artist Barbara Sonneborn has worked as a photographer and in other media, including sculpture and set design, for 26 years.  She designed and directed all visual aspects of Jean-Claude Van Itallie's play "Bag Lady," which was produced in New York at the Theater for the New City.  She photographed and directed the use of projections in "The White Buffalo", produced at Princeton University.  Her artwork has been exhibited in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and can be seen in New Directions in Photography, a book edited by then New York Metropolitan Museum of Art curator of photography Weston Naef.  Her photographs are also included in many private and museum collections.  Her awards include a 1998 Rockefeller Film/Video/Multi-Media Fellowship, the International Documentary Association Award for Distinguished Achievement/ABC News VideoSource Award for the Best Use of Archival Footage in 1998, and two National Endowment for the Arts grants.  Regret to Inform is Sonneborn's first film.  Among her future plans are writing a book about the widows of the Vietnam war, and further films about the terrible price of war.

 

Xuan Ngoc Evans, Translator

 

Now an American resident, Xuan Ngoc Evans grew up in a poor Vietnamese village in the 1950s.  At age 14, American bombs destroyed her home, and three years later she lost her first husband, who was fighting for South Vietnam.  Evans has been involved in numerous healing and reconciliation projects in the U.S. through several different national veterans' organizations.  She met director Barbara Sonneborn in Washington, D.C. while serving on a panel at the National Archives on War and Remembrance.  Sonneborn invited her on the journey because of Evans compassion and her ability to see the pain of war, not the different sides.  So, although Evans is a South Vietnamese widow, she was able to form bonds with the North Vietnamese and National Liberation Front widows, allowing the crew a level of access that would have been impossible otherwise.

 

Janet Cole, Producer/Executive Producer

 

Producer Janet Cole's early credits include the 1987 PBS series We the People and The AIDS Show: Artists Involved With Death and Survival, for what she was associate producer.  She has produced several works by director Peter Adair, including Absolutely Positive, which won the 1991 International Documentary Association Award for Distinguished Achievement and was invited to the Berlin and Sundance film festivals.  Cole conceived, developed, and supervised production of the four-hour television series POSITIVE:  Life With HIV for the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which was broadcast on PBS stations in 1996. She is currently producing Pink Triangle with directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman for Channel 4 and HBO/Cinemax.

 

Daniel Reeves, Cinematographer

 

As a Vietnam veteran and video artist, Daniel Reeves was involved in the early conceptual stages to Regret to Inform, and was the cinematographer for the initial American interviews.  Mr. Reeves has been working in video, film, photography, and sculpture since 1970.  His video credits include the Emmy award-winning Smothering Dreams (1981), a vivid autobiographical work dealing with the myths and realities of war as it relates to the artists' personal experience of being in an ambush in Vietnam.  He is a recipient of a USA/Japan fellowship through the National Endowment for the Arts and a John S. Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in Art.  He was awarded The Rockefeller Film/Video/Multi-Media Fellowship and has received several Video Artist Fellowships and Video Production grants from the NEA, as well as grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Contemporary Arts Television (CAT) Fund in Boston, Channel 4 in London, and new Television/WNET, among others.

 

Lucy Massie Phenix, Editor

 

Best known for her editing of international award-winner The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, which premiered at the 1980 New York Film Festival, Lucy Massie Phenix has worked as a producer, a director, and an editor.  She began her filmmaking career on the 1971 Vietnam War film Winter Soldier, which received much acclaim in Europe at the Cannes and Berlin festivals, but was largely shunned in the U.S.  Phenix was co-director and co-editor of the landmark film Word Is Out (1978), which profiled the lives of American gays and lesbians, received extensive international distribution and a Columbia-Dupont Citation for Excellence in Broadcast journalism.  You Got to Move (1985), a feature documentary about community activists in the American South, was invited to the 1986 Berlin Film Festival and won the Ecumenical Award at the International Festival of Documentary Film in Nyon, Switzerland.  Phenix's other credits include Cancer in Two Voices (1993).

 

Ken Schneider, Editor

 

Ken Schneider has edited several documentaries for PBS, including Ancestors in the America, Part 2:  Pioneers in the American West by Loni Ding and Frontline's Columbia-Dupont-winning School Colors by Telesis Productions and The Center for Investigative Reporting.  More recent projects include Lieweila, a personal history of the Micronesian island Saipan;  The Return of Sarah's Daughters, an exploration of contemporary Jewish women's spirituality; and Making Peace: Rebuilding Our Communities, a look at community efforts to address violence in black urban communities.  Schneider was sound editor and assistant picture editor on the Emmy-winning Last Images of War.

 

Emiko Omori, Cinematographer

 

In addition to her acclaimed cinematography for many productions, Emiko Omori has directed several films, including Hot Summer Winds for American Playhouse, The Departure, and Tattoo City.  Her latest film, The Rabbit in the Moon, will be released in 1999.  Omori was the cinematographer in Vietnam for Regret to Inform.

 

Nancy Schiesari, Cinematographer

 

In a career spanning 20 years, Nancy Schiesari has worked for the British Film Institute and the BBC in Britain and for Channel 4 and ABC in the U.S.  Her many independent features and documentaries include Partition for Channel 4, Warrior Marks, A Place of Rage, Not Just a Fish Finger, Menu for a Multinational, and Flesh and Paper.  Schiesari shot most of the U.S. interviews in Regret to Inform.

Todd Boekelheide, Composer

 

Todd Boekelheide started in the film business in 1974 as a member of American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola's San Francisco production company.  In 1976 he left to work as an assistant editor on Star Wars and went on to edit picture and sound on The Black Stallion two years later.  This film sparked Boekelheide's interest in film music, and he began music studies at Oakland's Mills College.  While he became a composer of film scores, he also specialized as a re-recording mixer, winning an Oscar for mixing the music in Amadeus in 1984.  Boekelheide has scored several feature films, including Dim Sum and Nina Takes a Lover, and numerous documentaries, most notably Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse.

 

CAST AND CREW

 

Producer, Director, Writer                          Barbara Sonneborn

Producer, Executive Producer                               Janet Cole

Editors                                                                       Lucy Massie Phenix
                                                                                  Ken Schneider

Senior Associate Producer                                     Todd Wagner

Post Production Supervisor/

Associate Editor                                                       Sari Gilman

Original Music Composed by                               Todd Boekelheide

Co-Producer                                                 Ron Greenberg

Line Producer                                                           Kathy Brew

Senior Associate Producers                                    Megan Jones, Daniel Reeves

Consulting Editor                                                    Nathaniel Dorsky

Cinematographer, Vietnam                                    Emiko Omori

Cinematographer, U.S.                                            Nancy Schiesari, Daniel Reeves

Sound Recording                                                     Julie Konop, Elizabeth Thompson

Location Interpreters                                               Xuan Ngoc Evans, Viet Dung

First Stage Editing                                                   Jennifer Chinlund

Consulting Director                                     Vivien Hillgrove

Associate Writer                                                       Olivia Crawford

Narration Coach                                                       Penny Kreitzer

Post Production Facility                                         Bay Area Video Coalition

On-Line Editor                                                         Zacharia Paul Pineda

Sound Supervisor                                                    Jennifer Ware

Re-Recording Mixer                                                Samuel Lehmer

Sponsored by                                                            Film Arts Foundation

In Order of Appearance                                          Barbara Sonneborn

                                                                                    April Burns

                                                                                    Lula Bia

                                                                                    Norma Banks

                                                                                    Phan Ngoc Dung

                                                                                    Diane C. Van Renselaar

                                                                                    Grace Castillo

                                                                                    Nguyen My Hien, M.D.

                                                                                    Xuan Ngoc Evans

                                                                                    Charlotte Begay

                                                                                    Tran Nghia

                                                                                    Troung Thi Huoc

                                                                                    Phan Thi Thuan

                                                                                    Troung Thi Le

                                                                                    Le Thi Ngot

                                                                                    Nguyen Thi Hong

 

Major Funding Provided by  Corporation for Public Broadcasting, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Walter Scheuer/The Four Oaks Foundation, The Sheffel Family Fund, Curt and Annette Sonneborn, The California Council for the Humanities, The National Endowment for the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship, The National Asian American Telecommunications Association.   Sponsored by Film Arts Foundation   

© 1998 Sun Fountain Productions, Inc.

 

 

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