This lesson outline draws heavily from the acclaimed film Regret to Inform, described by the New York Times as "exquisitely filmed, edited and scored... the documentary equivalent of a tragic epic poem".
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" the telegram began. Twenty years later, Sonneborn, a photographer and visual artist, was compelled to make a brave pilgrimage to the remote Vietnamese countryside where her husband died. She explores the meaning of war and loss on a human level and weaves interviews with Vietnamese and American widows into a vivid testament to the chilling legacy of war. As we near the 25th anniversary of the war's end, these stories are stirring reminders that the battle scars are lifelong, but that shared sorrow can inspire healing and reconciliation. "Regret to Inform" has been shown at festivals and theaters throughout the United States. It was presented as a national television special on PBS in January, 2000, and broadcast to numerous countries around the world. "Regret to Inform" was shown at the 2000 United Nations International meeting on the Status of Women (Bejing+5) where it inspired a film festival about human rights issues for women. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1998, won the Independent Spirit Award in 1999, and won for Best Director, Best Cinematographer and Feature Documentary at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
The film "Regret to Inform" enables students to study the impact of the Vietnam War on the lives of war widows from all sides of the conflict. The film explores some of the universal implications of war on a society. Regret to Inform is, at its heart, the story of one woman's journey to find answers about her husband's death, and to come to terms with the legacies of war in her life and the lives of other war widows. The film raises important questions about memory, historical legacy, and the way history is written and remembered. The Teaching Guide for Regret to Inform offers many lessons that teachers can use to introduce the film and to discuss the film after viewing.
Note to teachers before showing Regret to Inform in class: As with any film or resource, teachers are strongly encouraged to watch the film in its entirety before showing it to classes. Because the film is about the Vietnam War and its legacies, graphic descriptions and images form part of the story. The film also offers rich archival and contemporary footage of the Vietnamese countryside and people, emphasizing what was lost in the war and the rebuilding that has occurred since the war.
The total running time of the film is about 68 minutes. If time allows, teachers are encouraged to show the entire film to their classes. For teachers unable to use the entire film, here are some suggested excerpts. There are natural breaks throughout the film, so these segments can be shortened further, depending on the teacher's judgment.
Segment 1: Introduction (00:00* - 10:04): Barbara Sonneborn's explanation for going to Vietnam; meeting the women and hearing their and their husbands' stories.
Segment 2: "I realized that we hadn't ever talked honestly about war means." (10:04 - 22:25): the women's perspectives on the war and their husbands' service in the war; Jeff Gurvitz' own account of his experiences in Vietnam.
Segment 3: "Why didn't my father come home?" (48:45 - 1:08:15, beginning of credits): short-term and long-term effects of the war on veterans, widows; legacies of war for those left behind; end of Barbara's journey-visiting the village where he was killed and learning the circumstances of his death.
*Starting the counter at the beginning of the actual film, after the previews.
Whether using the entire film or just an excerpt, it is helpful to set context by providing background on the Vietnam era and Sonneborn's reasons for making the film.
As students view Regret to Inform (in whole or in part), encourage them to record in their journals unfamiliar vocabulary and questions they have.
Potential questions for reflection:
- Why did Sonneborn go to Vietnam? What do you think her expectations were?
- How do the American women seem to view Vietnam? How do the Vietnamese women seem to view the United States? What similarities do you notice in their perceptions?
- Whose Voices Tell Which Histories?
"I remember before Jeff left, we talked about how afraid I was that he would get killed. We never talked about the fact that he would have to kill people, maybe even a child. I realized that we hadn't ever talked honestly about what war means." (Barbara Sonneborn)
"He wanted to be patriotic. He wanted to help. But once he saw all of the killing of all the group, the Vietnamese, just looking like him-just about the same skin color, the same height-I think that really made him think, ‘What is he doing here?'" (Charlotte Begay)
- Ask students to think about the way history is told. Brainstorm a list of the ways people learn about their society's history (history classes in school, television, movies, monuments, museums, books, magazines, witnesses to historical moments, families, etc.). After compiling the list, have students think about how history is told, and by whom, using items from the list as examples.
- Show the first segment of Regret to Inform (00:00 - 10:04). As students watch the clip, ask them to think about how the women tell their stories. Allow time to journal following the clip. Reflection questions:
- How is each woman's story unique? What similarities do you notice among the stories?
- What surprised you? Are there other voices you feel are missing? What might they add to the story?
- Then show the second segment (10:04 - 22:25). Have students reflect in journals on the following quotes from this portion of the film:
- Finally, read the story The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (teachers can also use short excerpts from the story). Teachers may want to assign this part as homework.
- Questions for discussion of the film and the short story:
- How do the voices of the women differ from those of the men? How are they similar?
- What more do we learn about the Vietnam War by hearing the women's stories?
- What do we learn from the widows that we might not have learned from their husbands, had they survived to tell their own stories? What other voices might inform our understanding of this time period?
- Survivor/Witness Testimony and Choices
- Have students read Isabella Leitner's story in the reading Survivors and Memory from Holocaust and Human Behavior. Have them respond to these connections questions in their journals:
- Does it matter what you remember? What did Isabella Leitner's mother want her children to remember? What was her legacy to them?
- How does Isabella Leitner approach the past? How does her past define her present? Her plans for the future?
- Transition to Regret to Inform: Discuss the ways in which people remember historical events, particularly painful ones. Prompt students to think about survivor testimony and documentaries as examples. Connect to Regret to Inform as one method in which history is remembered. Use segment two, focusing particularly on Nguyen Ngoc Xuan's story (Sonnenborn's friend who accompanies her to Vietnam).
- Compare Isabella Leitner's recollection of her family's experiences with Nguyen Ngoc Xuan's-what similarities do you hear in their accounts? How do they differ?
- How does the difference in what Americans and Vietnamese call the war influence how people in each country think about the war?
- How are the women in the film confronting the past? How are they "moving on" with their lives?
- History and Memory
- Ask students what images come to mind when they hear the words Vietnam War. Encourage students to think of a variety of images from newsreels, magazines, documentary and popular films, television shows, books, etc. Write for two minutes, then pair, share. As a class, ask students to share those images and record their responses on board or chart paper to develop a group composite. Discussion questions: where did these images come from? What do these images say about the way Americans look at the war?
- Show all or part of segment three, the end of the film (48:45 - 1:08:15). Give students time to journal after viewing the film clip.
- What do the women in the film want others to know about the Vietnam War? What lessons do they hope others learn?
- How do we memorialize events like the Vietnam War? Who is remembered, and for what reasons?
- How do we remember people who have died? Do we remember them as heroes? Do we remember them as ordinary people? Why do we sometimes remember only the best about people we've lost?
- Who does the Vietnam Veterans Memorial honor? Who is remembered? Who is not?
Have students read Education and the Future. Break the class into two groups, assigning one group connection questions 1-3 and the second group questions 4-6. Have students assign a recorder and a reporter, then discuss the questions in their group.
Show segment on Maya Lin's struggle to create the Vietnam Veterans Memorial from A Strong Clear Vision. Ask students to think about the ways in which Vietnamese and Americans remember the war, relating to some of the comments of the war widows at the end of Regret to Inform.
After seeing the film and reading some of the Vietnam memoirs, have students conduct oral history interviews with parents or other family members about their remembrances of the Vietnam period. What are the most vivid memories? What were their opinions about the war at the time (if they were old enough to have an opinion)? What are their opinions today, and are their differences? Students could also interview war veterans-help students contact local veterans' organizations for willing interviewees, or potential guest speakers for the class.
Have students research how war can be a component of international relations. Topics to explore include the reasons nations give for going to war, the definition of "just war", and the many consequences of war (economic, political, social).
Using Maya Lin's creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as inspiration, ask students to design their own memorial project, taking into consideration questions of how history is remembered, who tells the story, and how viewers of memorials respond to them. See also Building Memorials and Monuments.