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Gone: The Disappearance Of Aeryn Gillern

by Steve Weinstein
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Tuesday Jul 3, 2012
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Having been to Austria three times, two of those times to experience the Life Ball, the massive Viennese AIDS fund-raiser, I can vouch for having seen the very best of the Austrian people. But the modern Austrians (Viennese in particular) remain well aware of a dark side, a very dark side that continues to haunt them.

It was at the trial of Adolph Eichmann, the Austrian mastermind of the "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to kill every Jew under their domain, that Hannah Arendt coined the phrase "the banality of evil." Arendt’s famous summation of the attitude that "I was just taking orders" kept ringing through my head as I watched "Gone: The Disappearance Of Aeryn Gillern."

This documentary is one of the most disturbing, yet vital and ultimately uplifting, films I have seen in a long, long time. Disturbing because of the way Kathryn Gilleran, a retired Upstate New York policewoman, is treated by official Austria, from the local police precinct to politicians of the Green Party.

Vital, because of the way directors Gretchen and John Morgan simply, elegantly and chillingly lay out the facts of the case of Kathryn’s son Aeryn, a U.N. worker who lived in Vienna; lived, that is, until a night in 2007, when he was seen running naked out of a bathhouse.

Uplifting, because of the way Kathryn Gilleran moves from anguish, despair and hopelessness to strength, resolve and steadfastness. Although we learn everything about Aeryn, an extraordinary young man who trained for the priesthood until he realized his sexuality was incompatible with celibacy. Aeryn comes off as intelligent, well-adjusted, totally comfortable with his sexuality -- and very, very good looking. So good looking that he won his adopted country’s title of "Mr. Austria."

That title is thrown up in Kathryn’s face by the police officers that are assigned to her son’s case. Much of the film traces, through Kathryn’s eyes, the way the police botched the case, which, as SNAFU after SNAFU piles up, becomes nearly unbelievable.

Kathryn uses every resource she can to try to find out whether her son committed "spontaneous suicide" or whether something happened at the bathhouse that was so horrible that he panicked and either fell into a Danube canal, was pushed, or died of other causes. (His corpse was never found.)

"Gone" gives some background about the mutual suspicion that exists between Vienna’s vibrant gay community and the city’s police force. One by one, Aeryn’s fellow United Nations workers, his boyfriend (who apparently didn’t want to be seen in the film), a gay police officer, politicians from the Green Party, and a newspaper reporter try to help Kathryn, only to throw in the towel.

It was inevitable that, at some point in the move, we’d see Kathryn before Vienna’s monument to its Jewish community wiped out during the Holocaust. Kathryn makes the connection between the Austrians’ debasement of Jews as non-persons and the way they have similarly reduced her own son.

Is it because he was gay that they were so lax about following simple police procedure? Because he was an American? Because the bathhouse owners have friends in high places? Because the person who did whatever he did to Aeryn that night has connections to the police or politicians?

All of these questions are entertained. But there are no conclusions, because every time Kathryn makes progress, she is stonewalled.

Finally, in a heartbreaking scene, we see Kathryn, alone in her vigil as she holds up her son’s photo with a candle directly across from the bathhouse. She still holds out hope that someone will come forward with knowledge of what happened that night five years ago in a Viennese bathhouse. Until then, we are left with the haunting image of a loving mother grieving for the unsolved disappearance of her beloved son.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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