"Regret to Inform" is a powerful, deeply affecting documentary about war's toll, made especially so by its unique focus.

On her 24th birthday, in 1968, Barbara Sonneborn's ghastly present was the news that her husband was killed during a mortar attack in Vietnam. For years, Sonneborn, as surely a victim of post-traumatic stress as any soldier, like many Americans "tried to put the war behind me." On the 20th anniversary of her husband's death Sonneborn realized that nothing had been put to rest. For a decade she listened to stories of other widows on all sides--American, South Vietnamese, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. The result is "Regret to Inform," a 1999 Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary and a 1999 Sundance Film Festival award winner for best director and best cinematography. It is being shown this week at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Sonneborn--director, producer, writer and narrator--wisely inserts herself sparingly, using her personal saga as a backdrop for other voices. They ring with unflinching truth, particularly the Vietnamese women with their horrific accounts of torture, of families killed and of villages burned before their eyes. By contrast, the American widows share their sorrows and memories but cannot possibly know the smell and feel of death; they speak more innocently of war, surrounded by such treasured relics as letters, wallets, pictures, flags and dog tags.

Sonneborn's journey is both real and symbolic. As her train winds through lush countryside to reach the remote hamlet of Que Son, where her husband died, the women's laments are interwoven with well-matched archival footage. Stunning cinematography illuminates emerald rice fields and misty mountains; an achingly peaceful counterpoint to a war-mad life now harrowingly retold.

"After our house was bombed . . . we were hiding in the bomb shelter," recounts Xuan Evans, Sonneborn's friend and translator. She was 14, her cousin 5. The parched cousin had raced out of the shelter in search of water as Evans tried to stop him. "He walk a little way . . . and then it's so fast, gun was blasting, and all I see is blood and body part. . . . American soldier was shooting at my cousin." She sees the soldier. "He has the horrified look in his eye as much as I do." A wounded girlfriend was hiding with her. "She going to die, so I took her food for me. I 14-year-old . . . and I decide who live and who die."

Grief fills her face. "To help my family I go to sleep with American men for money. Sometime the guy have sex with me. . . . Sometime he just yell or cry, and I don't know why they pay me to listen to them yell and cry." A tear slides down her face. "For a long time, I think I'm a bad person, but in my heart I know I'm a good person. . . . I wouldn't do the thing that I did, if I have another choice."

An elderly woman holds a napkin to her eyes as she tells of nine family members all killed "without even having anything for their breakfast." And another: "It wasn't safe to stay in the house. So [her sister] had to take her baby and mingle in with the dead bodies. . . . If you weren't dead, you weren't safe."

Then we hear on tape the young voice of Jeff Gurvitz, Sonneborn's soldier-husband: "It's as if I were a bystander in my own life, calmly watching myself do things that I never expected or desired to."

The cumulative effect of these stories--from American whites, African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, the Viet Cong and South Vietnamese, enemies in the '60s--speaks to the universality of loss.

"My son would ask me why his father did not return. When he got older he would ask, 'Why did my father die?' I couldn't find the answer for my son.

"All I could do is hold him and cry."

This was a Vietnamese mother talking. But it could have been any one of them.

"Regret to Inform" will be shown free at the Hirshhorn at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. It will also air as part of the "POV" series on PBS--locally on WETA and WMPT--at 10 p.m. Jan. 24.

CAPTION: Translator Xuan Evans, above left, with filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn, tells of the devastation of her village; at right, Sonneborn with Nguyen Thi Hong.