In a world of instant communication, there is a daily sense of information overload. Most of us spend more time deleting unwanted messages than reading or answering them. Very, very occasionally, just a few words in a text message or voicemail inbox can forever change a life.
On October 31, 2007, thanks to a tip from a former police colleague, Kathy Gillern dashed home from her current job at the Cortland, New York SPCA to hear the recorded call from Vienna that had something to do with Aeryn’s—her eldest son—apparent disappearance.
Four years later, filmmakers Gretchen and John Morning have chronicled the deeply disturbing events using Kathy’s recollections. Her courage, desperation, frustration and determination are caught in extreme close-up and intertwined with footage new and old from the City of Dreams and small town USA. As the details emerge, it seems that a writing credit ought to go to Franz Kafka: it’s hard to imagine how anyone could survive this sorry quest for any sort of truth, much less find closure.
The undisputed facts are precious few, leaving the family, police and viewers to fill in the blanks largely for themselves. The alarm was initially raised when Aeryn’s employer—United Nations Industrial Development Organization—noted the 34-year-old former Mr. Gay Austria missed two consecutive days of work. The log shows him signing out on October 29. Not long after that, he’d made his way to an upscale men’s sauna, Kaiserbründl, where his belongings were subsequently retrieved. Allegedly—police were not called to assist or investigate—some sort of fracas broke out in the bath house: “fight with tourists”, “someone had to go to the hospital” but a queer code of secrecy and culture of willful blindness left the official record blank.
Virtually every other explanation of what actually happened that night lacks convincing corroboration. Kathy’s recounting of her experiences once she came on scene November 2 are honestly convincing, yet—necessarily—told from a distraught mother’s point of view. The version of events she describes based on her first-person accounts of visits to Vienna’s Polizei (accompanied by a translator from UNIDO) has no paper trail: the incident report has never been released.
Nonetheless, viewers are asked to believe that after the melee in the steamy confines of Kaiserbründl, Aeryn bolted naked into the city centre streets, passing restaurants, churchgoers and pedestrians before hurtling over a wrought iron fence, then jumping into the Danube Canal. Verdict? Spontaneous suicide—no doubt that the queer foreigner was HIV+. His body has never been recovered. The police attended following a call from a fisherman who reports (a) a bald headed man floating (b) a body floating by (c) a scream and a splash (d) a splash, depending on which version suits the moment.
Living in her son’s close-to-work apartment, Kathy’s vigil appears to finally pay off on December 4 when—standing outside the exclusive tubs, candle and picture in hand—a young man admits to knowing Aeryn and invites the suddenly elated mom for a tour inside the exclusive club. This time they are accompanied by a translator who may well be her new friend’s fag hag. A crucial moment comes when the guide falls to the floor, weeping and rubbing the tiles. Kathy is riveted and hungry for details, but is cautioned that “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”; “Your son is gone.” Kathy has also observed video cameras in several of the common areas. But those tapes have never been officially rewound.
Curiously, after many months stateside where Kathy loses her job then opts to dig deeper into that fateful night, the Austrian Green Party comes to her aid and demands an inquest. In February 2009, the results are known, but hardly worth the effort for the police investigated themselves rather than any sort of independent judicial review. How Canadian, eh?
The film tries its best to ask difficult questions in hopes that someone will step forward and reveal what they know or some agency (hello there U.S. Consulate) will demand a proper, disinterested inquiry. The original score by Erik Blicker and Glen Schloss paints an appropriately moody, puzzling canvas—nervous drums, unsettling mallets and a late inning chorus of hope—yet by the time the title song (written and performed by Jenn Morson) accompanies the credits, there are more questions raised than answered.
What was Aeryn doing at Kaiserbründl? He’d just come off a weekend with his “long-time” partner. Did they have an open relationship? Or did Aeryn want a little (or a lot) on the side. Being queer “royalty” he might well supplement his wages “playing” with Vienna’s elite and frequently closeted queers.
Did he ever run away nude? Passing dozens and dozens of people without a stitch, it’s hard to conceive that just one couple would come forward as witness once the media finally started following up the story. Could no one recall seeing/hearing an ambulance coming to care for whomever was in need? Was the fisherman a ghost or real? How stunningly coincidental that Aeryn’s HIV results report (negative) was found amongst his belongings that Kathy, eventually, was able to reclaim from the police.
Why did Aeryn’s January 2003 police complaint never make its way into the production (arrested for failing to stamp his transit ticket; alleging police brutality while in custody)? Part of this mix up involved the change of last name and two passports. Family matters (including a sibling who also aided the search but was never mentioned) most certainly should be private, yet the possible trauma behind those sorts of upheavals might add further depth to understanding the still missing man.
Quite possibly the Danube Canal theory is nothing more than a red herring. What drives people to sudden changes or acts of despair? As other filmmakers have well-documented (cross-reference below), some extra-attractive “men of the night” prefer to lose themselves in all manner of ways rather than face the stark reality of the next cute one pushing them off their pedestals. JWR