One could be forgiven, in the midst of the new documentary Gone, for thinking they may have wandered into a David Lynch film. Like Lynch's most surreal masterpieces, Gone tells the story of a dark and mesmerizing mystery -- a woman searching for answers -- and what seems to be a parallel universe "behind the curtain," filled with cryptic messengers who speak in code and clues that twist and turn to reveal more questions, more doubts and an ever-elusive truth.
Gone is not, however, a surrealist screenplay from an avant-garde director. It is a stark and moving documentary about an American mother's journey through the bureaucracy, and behind the curtain, of Vienna, Austria.
I first wrote about Kathy Gilleran's search for her son, Aeryn, on The HuffingtonPost in 2008. Aeryn disappeared in October 2007 while working for UNIDO in Vienna. Since then, Kathy has been on a quest to find out what happened to her son. Along the way, police in Vienna changed their story - again and again - about Aeryn's case and their investigation. Officials refused to answer questions, belittled Kathy's own expertise as a former police officer and, in short, did everything possible to make her go away. Instead, she has persevered and, thanks to the work of filmmakers John and Gretchen Morning, is now telling her story to the world.
The result is a haunting film that will move and outrage you, with a cast of characters right out of Lynch's "black lodge" of Twin Peaks fame.
Gone is narrated by Kathy. Set against a striking, dark background with a close-up camera documenting every pained moment that comes from reliving the harrowing experience of the past four years, Kathy recounts the days immediately following Aeryn's disappearance and the years-long journey she has embarked upon in the search for answers.
In Vienna, she encounters police officers who try to undermine her own career as a police officer. When she questions their initial report of the investigation into her son's case - a report later debunked as utterly impossible by others, too - she is accused of being a parking meter ticket maid. (Kathy was, in fact, a seasoned officer with the Ithaca, New York police department.) Investigators also refuse to cooperate with translators assigned to help Kathy navigate the investigation -- and refuse to speak English, even when it becomes apparent they are capable of doing so.
Officers don't even attempt to hide their pervasive homophobia. They accuse Aeryn - a proud, gay man - of being suicidal, HIV-positive and of jumping into the Danube in a fit of "spontaneous suicide." Despite written test results showing Aeryn had tested negative just before he disappeared, police continue to employ gay-baiting tactics to blame Aeryn for his own death. When Kathy disproves one accusation, officers backtrack, change their story, and invent a new scenario.
Then, the cryptic cover-up that is becoming increasingly obvious takes another surreal - and, surprisingly, darkly poetic - turn.
While holding a vigil for Aeryn outside of the Kaiserburndl - the sauna in Vienna's high-end tourist and shopping district where Aeryn was last seen - Kathy is approached by a young man who offers to take her inside for a tour. What she finds - and hears - when she's finally allowed inside would challenge Lynch's most hallucinatory movie scenes.
The Kaiserbrundl is decorated with massive art murals depicting homoerotic scenes, painted in rooms that seem as if they could have been designed by Marie Antoinette's interior decorator. Indeed, the Kaiserbrundl is like an Austrian hide-away where Caravaggio and Jack the Ripper would have felt equally at home.
As her "tour" winds its way through the labyrinth of lounges, bars and baths inside the sauna, the Kaiserbrundl's manager suddenly drops, crying and running his hands over the marble floor. When Kathy asks her translator what has happened to upset the owner, she replies that this is the last place he ever saw Aeryn.
"What happened?" Kathy asks as he continues to cry and rub the floor.
"He doesn't want to talk about it," comes the reply. "What happened to your son here doesn't matter. Your son is gone."
The answer - "what happened to your son doesn't matter" - echoes throughout the rest of the film.
According to one eye witness, immediately after the incident in the sauna, Aeryn ran, naked, through the streets of Vienna. One look at Aeryn's photo - he was a muscular, fit man who held the title of Mr. Gay Austria - seems to confirm that it probably wasn't a run-of-the-mill physical altercation inside the Kaiserbrundl that sent him fleeing. The same witness recalled that Aeryn's eyes revealed something chillingly frightening.
Whatever happened on the marble floors of the Kaiserbrundl was so shocking, and so completely unforgettable, that it continues to haunt the sauna's owner and sends him spiraling into despair.
It is those missing minutes of Aeryn's story - still locked deep inside the eerie, cavernous rooms of the Kaiserbrundl - that provide a glimpse into what might have happened and that, in true Lynchian style, provide the unanswered questions that make Gone a film that lingers long after the closing credits roll.
Contrary to what those who are covering up, and collapsing under, the truth, it does matter what happened to Aeryn. And despite the best efforts of those complicit in that cover-up, Kathy Gilleran has ensured that, even though he is gone, her son will not be forgotten.
Gone is now playing at select film festivals around the world. For a complete list of upcoming screenings, visit www.gone-film.com. For more information on Aeryn's story, visit his website online here.