PARK CITY '99: A Ten-Year Odyssey to "Regret to Inform"
By Rebecca Sonnenshine
It is rare when a documentary can be both extraordinarily personal and
make an overwhelmingly universal statement at the same time. "Regret
Inform," one of Sundance's most poignant, compassionate 1999 entries
(and a 1999 IFP Spirit Award nominee), is not only a deeply moving
of one woman's experience, but a powerful anti-war statement that draws
from an often overlooked point of view: the women who were left behind.
Though the film steers away from deliberately political questions, it
quietly warns us of the dangers of looking at war through the cold lens
of politics. For when we merely see "the other," when we see only
protocol and power struggles, war becomes an unfortunately logical
Barbara Sonneborn, a Berkeley-based artist and filmmaker, began
crafting her film "Regret to Inform" over ten years ago, but the story
really began long before that. In 1968, just before her 24th birthday,
Sonneborn's first husband, Jeff Gurvitz, was killed during a
attack in Vietnam. It was a devastating, tragic blow that filled
Sonneborn with anger -- about the war, about political policy, about the
way Jeff had been misused and betrayed by the U.S. government. Through
the 1970s and 1980s, Sonneborn expressed many of these feelings through
her work. As a photographer and visual artist, many of her projects
dealt with her feelings about death. And after 20 years of exploring
these themes, Sonneborn felt as if the darkest period of her life was
over; she had successfully "pulled herself back into life."
On January 1, 1988, however, she woke up with a single, overwhelming
thought: she needed to make a statement about Jeff's death. With the
twentieth anniversary of his demise approaching, Sonneborn realized that
though she had immersed herself in her own experience with Vietnam, she
had never met other Vietnam widows. Widows not just from America, but
from Vietnam. She wanted to hear their stories, to know how they were
affected by their husband's deaths. She wanted to learn what they had
learned about war, not just the Vietnam War, but war in the larger
context of human nature and human suffering. Sonneborn began writing a
letter to Jeff, telling him how his death had affected his life. That
letter later became the narrative thread that weaves "Regret to Inform"
Sonneborn started searching for a medium for the project. At the time,
she had been experimenting with etched anodized aluminum. She thought
she might create a large installation piece, perhaps a graveyard or a
quilt made from the cold, hard material. But as a studio artist,
Sonneborn knew that exposure for a project like this was limited, at
best. She had always been frustrated by the small numbers of people who
actually attend art installations. "I realized that media was the only
way to reach a large number of people." So, after overcoming her
anxiety about her inexperience as a filmmaker, she decided to make a
film. "I had no idea what I was getting into, of course," she says.
"That was probably a good thing."
After plunging headfirst into the world of filmmaking as her own
producer, writer, and director, Sonneborn's first step was to look for
financing. The initial development money came from The California
Council of the Humanities. From there, she sought donations and funding
from private foundations and individuals, and received support from the
Bay Area Video Coalition, and the Film Arts Foundation.
But as usual,
raising the money was a long, slow process, accomplished in fits and
starts. "We must have written letters of inquiry to over 200
organizations," recalls Sonneborn. "But the truth is, if I'd had all
the funding right up front, it wouldn't have been as good a film."
First-time director Sonneborn discovered filmmaking to be an intricate
process of learning, both about her subject matter and her new craft.
"That process ended up influencing and expanding my thinking and my
Sonneborn then began seeking out Veteran's organizations and contacts.
She felt that before she embarked on the project, she needed the support
of veterans -- support that she overwhelmingly received. While in New
York in 1989, Sonneborn met Daniel Reeves, a video artist and
Veteran. He offered to conduct the first series of interviews with
American widows of the Vietnam War. Sonneborn met with a range of
responses from her interviewees, from the reluctant to the appreciative.
"Some people said,