Gone, a new documentary from Gretchen and John Morning, is a terrifying tale of a mother who’s son goes missing mysteriously overseas and will stop at nothing to get him back. But this isn’t like your average missing-person report on 20/20. It’s a tale that’s almost unbelievable in its ability to provoke utter outrage, and the almost surreal circumstances that surround this separated mother and son make Gone one of the most fascinating and horrifying documentaries playing at Tribeca this year. This is an international story about lies, deceit, and the powerlessness one must accept when living abroad, as told in front of the backdrop of one of the most historical, architecturally beautiful, and magical cities in all the world: Vienna.
Kathryn Gilleran was a police officer in upstate New York for 20 years before she retired to run the local ASPCA in Cortland. Her son, Aeryn Gillern (he changed his surname, presumably after moving away), lives in Vienna, where he works at UNIDO as a researcher. Both mother and son are well accomplished and charming. Kathryn’s poise in front of the camera and the precise progression of her speech while she recounts her story is indicative of her numerous awards and accolades from her 20 years on the force; she has the panache and backbone of a seasoned cop. Among her son’s accomplishments: two master’s degrees, an influential and respectable government job with a leading development organization, two nominations for Mr. Gay Austria (in ’05 and ’06), and various charity modeling events. In headshots, Aeryn looks like a chiseled, bald action hero, but prettier and with softer eyes—a cross between a young Demi Moore and a pre-Fast Five Vin Diesel. Kathryn is making plans to sell her house in Cortland (just a few miles outside of Syracuse) and move to Vienna for six months to be with her beloved son and see the world. On October 27, 2007, Kathryn hangs up with Aeryn in Vienna, not knowing it will be the last time she’ll ever hear him speak to her again.
A few days later, Aeryn has disappeared under terribly suspicious circumstances and the documentary follows Kathryn as she heads for Vienna to try and discover what happened to her son. Along the way she’s stonewalled by shifty and blatantly homophobic police officers, a Viennese government that just doesn’t care, and unsurprisingly, an utterly powerless American embassy. Aeryn’s disappearance occurs at night, from a high-profile and extremely discreet bathhouse and sauna called the Kaiserbründl, a local hangout for men in important positions who don’t want the world to know about their forays into homosexuality; at one point, Kathryn gets inside of the sauna and all the men cover their faces, thinking she’s somebody’s wife who’s come confront her adulterous husband. It’s never made clear why Aeryn has his own private dressing room at the Kaiserbründl, or exactly what his ties to the place are besides just liking to unwind after work in a sauna, but a little imagination can fill in the details of an almost Chandra Levey-esque type of situation. The possibility that he was involved with someone very important is very real, but the police who only half-heartedly investigated the scene don’t even consider it. They claim that Aeryn just got up that night, went crazy with the pressure of being a gay man, and ran through the streets naked until he jumped off a bridge, committing “spontaneous suicide.” But as any psychologist will tell you, there’s no such thing. On top of that, no one can find his body.
Ultimately, Gone serves to remind us that though Hilary Clinton has made it clear that “gay rights are human rights,” there are still a vast majority of sickeningly ignorant people and institutions in this world that don’t agree. And in Vienna, it’s shockingly obvious that Aeryn is discriminated against for his sexual orientation. After dragging Aeryn’s name through the mud and publicly humiliating him on a national scale in Vienesse newspapers and on television, the authorities in Austria cut Kathryn off, leaving her to fend for herself. To this day, there’s no resolution to Aeryn’s disappearance, but the stench of an official cover-up lingers in the air.
Though at times Kathryn is guilty of the same mass stereotyping that she’s trying to fight when she hints at the fact that Austria was sympathetic to Nazis during WII (and cast out their gays as well as Jews), and that perhaps we should expect nothing less than blatant homophobia from a country like that, there are many in the country who try to help her, including the LGBT community and a famous journalist. The problem is that none of this goodwill can sway the mind of the Austrian government to lend their hand in the matter, and without their support, it seems nothing can be done to help find Aeryn. Despite this daunting resistance, Kathryn continues to try and find her son, and will probably never stop.