Judge P.S. Colbert considers snarky quips to be entirely inappropriate in this case.
"Sicherheit & Hilfe. Ihre Wiener Polizei." (Safety & Assistance. Your Vienna Police.)
The story goes like this: At approximately 6:50 PM on the evening of 29 October 2007, thirty four year old American expatriate Aeryn Gillern bolted (stark naked) from the Kaiserbründl spa—a well-known gay club in downtown Vienna—following a "disturbance." From there he proceeded to the nearby Danube canal, where he vaulted into the icy water in an apparent "spontaneous suicide."
That, according to Aeryn's mother Kathy (a retired twenty one year veteran of the Ithica, NY police department) was the official report, as explained to her by the Viennese police. One doesn't necessarily need a background in police work to find such a report wanting or suspect. Pressed to theorize as to Aeryn's motivation for such clearly unusual behavior, the Austrian detectives assigned to investigate the case were no less sensible. "Because he's gay, he's emotionally unbalanced; he's HIV positive, and gays who are all these things commit spontaneous suicide all the time. In Austria," Kathy recalls them saying, her voice dripping with sarcasm and rage.
Gone: The Disappearance of Aeryn Gillern, written, produced and directed by Gretchen and John Morning, presents a most unusual examination of an all-too-common (though no less devastating) occurrence; the search for someone seemingly vanished without a trace. A good deal of the film was shot on hand-held camera by Gillern, documenting her travels and travails through "the city of music," often retracing her missing son's steps, or roaming the rocky coastline of the canal where he was reportedly seen last. Through photographs, home movies (shot by Aeryn), and Kathy's loving narrative, what emerges is a handsome and energetic young man working for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), surrounded by friends, and thrilled to be living in one of the world's most beautiful cities.
Despite its title, Gone: The Disappearance of Aeryn Gillern really amounts to the story of Kathy Gillern, a mother shattered not only by the sudden and inexplicable loss of her child, but also by the complete indifference—if not aggressive hostility—on the part of Austrian Polizei, whom she accuses of repeatedly changing stories, refusing official U.S. requests for information, and flagrant homophobia. Kathy is the film's lone interview subject and the experience she relates—being stranded in a foreign country and in dire need of help, but at the mercy of translators and bureaucrats seemingly invested in securing her failure—defines absurdism at its cruelest. Or is it paranoia?
While the filmmakers' decision to eschew traditional documentary techniques may be a "bold choice" (as one critic put it), it's also a risky one. Without anyone else to corroborate or refute Gillern's claims, how can we be sure of their accuracy? Would it be entirely beyond the realm of possibility to believe such a devastating loss might precipitate some sort of mental breakdown, or incite a vindictive bitterness towards those who've proved unhelpful?
Frankly, I do believe her, but then I'm predisposed to do so. As a parent trying to imagine walking in Gillern's shoes, I desperately want to believe that her on-camera testimony is the unvarnished truth with no ulterior motives. However, without any counterpoint to provide the film balance, I found myself becoming increasingly distracted by nagging questions of fairness. At one point, Gillern charges that but for some politically correct monuments and lip service, twenty first century Austria is fundamentally the same country that so willingly gave up its homosexuals sixty years ago, to be carted off to death camps alongside Jews, Catholics, Gypsies, and others the Nazi regime deemed undesirable. With such an extremely powerful charge, why is there no rebuttal?
Even if the filmmakers were stonewalled, why not mention this? What's more, there were friends mentioned by name who helped Gillern along the way, but their corroboration—or disputation, as the case may be—is also conspicuously absent. Strange.
Breaking Glass gives this very personal, low-budget documentary a respectful standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, accompanied by a clear Dolby 2.0 Stereo mix. Extras include a photo gallery and thirty minutes of Aeryn's "home movie" footage, a simultaneously charming and spooky viewing experience.
Make no mistake: despite my critical qualms about an incomplete picture presented by the Mornings, Gone: The Disappearance of Aeryn Gillern makes for spellbinding and heartbreaking cinema. If your heart doesn't go out to this woman, forget about consulting a cardiologist. You have no heart at all.
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