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War and Remembrance: Director Barbara Sonneborn interviewed Vietnamese and American widows for 'Regret to Inform.'

Scar Tissue

A wrenching documentary examines the Vietnam War from a new angle

By Richard von Busack

IN WASHINGTON, D.C., there are two monuments to the Vietnam War. One is a heroic-sized statue of three soldiers, the middle one walking wounded. The other monument is better known: Maya Lin's wedge-shaped memorial cut in the earth, with black walls that bear the names of every U.S. serviceman who perished in the war. Two recent documentaries tackle the subject of the Vietnam War, and they are similarly titled but completely different. The Tom Hanks-presented Return With Honor tells of the torture captured U.S. pilots endured at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Return With Honor is a tale of war heroism, but the film achieves its heroism through discreet silence about what exactly those U.S. pilots were doing when they were shot down: some of them were bombing civilians at their country's command. By contrast, Regret to Inform is much more like Lin's great monument. It doesn't give you an example of heroism: it tells of the cost of the war on a person-by-person basis.

In a few unadorned lines, director Barbara Sonneborn describes how, on her 24th birthday, she received the letter from the government that regretted to inform her that she was now a widow. Remarried today, but still haunted, Sonneborn went to Vietnam to find the exact spot where her husband, Jeff Gurvitz, fell, in a free-fire zone in Que Sahn province, February 1968. With her translator and friend Xuan Ngoc Evans--a woman who suffered almost everything the war had the power to inflict--Sonneborn interviewed Vietnamese women who also lost their husbands. These include Dr. Nguyen My Hien, a pediatrician, who says, "As a doctor, I saved so many lives, but not his." The American widows interviewed include April Burns, who talks of smelling the mud left on her dead husband's personal effects, in hopes of getting closer to him after he'd died.

Sonneborn presents a recurrent image of a boat gliding down a now-peaceful Vietnamese river, with the oar supported in a twist of rope. The image is of a journey into the past, but it's surprising how many remembrances are left in the present. There's the metallic tang of Agent Orange still polluting the land at Que Sahn; there's also the glancing shot of a dead soldier's letter home in which we can read only phrases: "Love you," "Sure miss you," "Without you ... like a lost soul."

Regret to Inform isn't strictly about the war; any widow or widower asks the same questions, wondering what thoughts their mate carried into death. Sonneborn ends the film with an uncredited quote: "Our deaths are not ours, they are yours. They will mean what you make them." What could be made of these deaths is the folly of forgetting the lessons of Vietnam: as we're urged to forget, so often, by politicians and commentators alike. The will to fight is so much less precious than the knowledge of when to fight.

'Regret to Inform' (Unrated; 72 min.), a documentary by Barbara Sonneborn, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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