Gone: The Disappearance of Aeryn Gillern is an intriguing documentary, focusing on the 2007 disappearance of American UN worker Aeryn Gillern in Vienna, and his mother's quest to discover the truth of what happened. The film is a powerful and emotional investigation without being overbearing or preachy, and the filmmakers have a light yet deft touch, letting the material speak for itself.
In the interests of full disclosure, let me say that, while I never knew Aeryn Gillern or his family, I do know friends of his, and it was their discussion of the film that sparked my interest in seeing it. The thoughts below are entirely my own, however.
While the putative subject of this film is obviously Aeryn Gillern, the real focus is on his mother, retired police officer Kathy Gillern. Perhaps this is inevitable, since she is alive and able to talk, while the viewer can only know Aeryn through archival video and what others say of him. Gone really works as a narrative of Kathy's life from the moment that she gets a message that her son is missing on through the next several years and her efforts to find out what happened. And it is a portrait of frustration and pain.
The rough breakdown of what happened is this. One evening, Aeryn, who was openly gay, went to a sauna in downtown Vienna that catered to gay males. Sometime during the night there was a disturbance of some kind, the details of which are never fully known, and Aeryn runs from the sauna, nude, apparently in fear of his life. Later, a fisherman reports to the police that he saw a body floating down a canal, presumably Aeryn's. He is not seen again. As far as hard facts go, that is all there is, and even those are questionable. Kathy arrives in Vienna within days, and though Aeryn's co-workers at the UN try to be helpful, most of the Viennese officialdom is decidedly obstructive, probably even deceptive. The police's stated theory on Aeryn's disappearance is "spontaneous suicide", perhaps because he found out he was HIV positive.
Here is where the problems begin, but certainly not where they end, because Aeryn had just gotten test results back that he was HIV negative, and the lab report was literally among his things left at the sauna, which the police had full access to. The Viennese detectives are rude and unhelpful right from the first interview with Kathy in Aeryn's apartment, and only become more spiteful as time goes on, at times refusing Kleenex to the grieving mother, and only reluctantly letting her use a restroom at the police station when the grief overwhelms her to the point of nausea. The level of disregard for the truth or even normal police procedure is difficult to fathom. At one point, Kathy states that either they simply don't care, because Aeryn was gay and an American, or they are covering something up. This may seem a harsh assessment, but while one always likes to give others the benefit of the doubt, it is hard to conceive of a reasonable third alternative. It would be pointless to list here all the details that support her conclusions, but there are many, which a viewing of the film will make abundantly clear.
The film is well made, and directors Gretchen and John Morning wisely refrain from injecting themselves into the subject matter, allowing Kathy to simply tell her story in a series of interviews, interlaced with home video featuring Aeryn, footage that Kathy took on her trips to Vienna, and material that the filmmakers shot themselves. The story is compelling and straightforward enough without an intrusive voiceover trying to explain things to us. And the filmmakers display remarkable restraint when dealing with very emotionally raw material. Aside from one perhaps ill-advised comparison to the Nazis, attenuated as it is, the film does not attempt to take sides, push a particular theory of events or offer commentary. Gone allows the viewer to make what they will of the material presented, mostly direct from the mouth of the victim's mother. And be warned, the film can at times be difficult to watch. Not because of any graphic depictions, but because we witness the true injustice being inflicted on Aeryn and his mother, and the raw pain that this causes. In fictional depictions, the determined investigator is always able to worm their way to the core of the conspiracy, discover the truth and bring the villains to justice. But this is real life, and justice is sometimes not served here. That realization might be the most painful one of all. Gone: The Disappearance of Aeryn Gillern is a very good film. Highly recommended.
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