Ithaca Times

GONE: Documentary about retired Ithaca police officer's missing son showing in Syracuse, Rochester

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Posted: Friday, October 14, 2011 8:00 am

On Halloween 2007, retired Ithaca police officer Kathy Gilleran began a nightmare that hasn't ended in the nearly four years that have passed since then.

That was the day she was told her 34-year-old son, Aeryn Gillern, was missing.

The Groton High School graduate worked as a research clerk for the United Nation's Industrial Development Organization in Vienna, Austria. Gilleran said her son loved his job and his life in Vienna, and they were making plans for her to move there. But on the night of Oct. 29, 2007, that all changed when he vanished - without a trace and without any answers for his grieving mother.

He was last seen by co-workers around 6 p.m. that night, what happened after that is a matter of contention between Gilleran and Vienna police, the latter of which said Aeryn had committed "spontaneous suicide" by jumping into the Danube Canal.

What Kathy has gone through in the last four years trying to find out what happened to Aeryn and getting resistance at nearly every turn is the focus of the documentary, GONE.

"I think it's powerful," said Kathy Gilleran of the documentary. "No one could ever replicate the loop that goes around in my head of everything that happened. Especially the five and a half weeks after Aeryn disappeared and the subsequent four years after that, but I think it packs a punch."

GONE had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, and has been screened at festivals in Tampa, Atlanta, Austin, New York City and San Francisco.

This weekend it will hit theaters closer to Kathy's Cortland home, showing in Syracuse and Rochester.

This weekend, the film will show three times. It is screening at the Syracuse Film Festival at 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Palace Main Theater, located at 2384 James St. in Syracuse. Also on Saturday, it will be part of Reel Affirmations at George Washington University.

On Sunday, Oct. 16, the documentary will be a part of Image Out: The Rochester Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival. That screening will take place at 1 p.m. at Little Theater 1, located at 240 East Ave. in Rochester, NY.

Filmmakers John and Gretchen Morning were drawn to the story after reading a news brief in the Syracuse newspaper in 2008, followed by several conversations with Kathy. They didn't know what to expect when they dove into making the documentary, but they said audience reaction to it at the festivals where it has screened has been strong.

"There's been some really good response," said John.

"The audience response is typically disbelief," added Gretchen. "Not non-believing, but disbelief at what Kathy has had to go through."

She said they had modest expectations for what the film might be, but the response it has gotten from festivals has been amazing. The film even earned the best documentary award at NewFest, New York's LGBT Festival.

The true coup thus far is having it selected to screen at the Viennale Film Festival in Vienna, Austria, at a theater very close to the last place Aeryn was seen alive. Those screenings will take place Oct. 23-24.

"We really didn't know what could happen with it," Gretchen said. "We were so happy for the story to premiere at Tribeca, to win a best documentary award, to be showing it in Vienna - it's beyond our wildest expectations for what it could do for Kathy.

"To embark on this project and be as successful as it has been - it's really awesome for this story," she added.

The reality, however, is that despite the glowing words that have come from audiences, the story is a tragic one.

"It's a hard story to live with, it's upsetting," said Gretchen. "Whenever you're involved in such a tragedy, it takes a toll on everyone who's in it - most of all Kathy. It brings sadness into your life."

"We hope this helps her," John added. "We hope something positive can come from this."

While the documentary is about Aeryn's disappearance, it's Kathy's story that's being told. And her doing the telling.

"It's kind of weird, odd to watch me," she said. "I've only watched it twice. I watched it in the privacy of my own home. I watched it and about four hours later it hit me.

"I also saw part of it at Tribeca (Film Festival), but I had to walk out," Gilleran added. "It's hard to watch. It takes me back to a place that's very painful. Not that that place isn't always with me - it just re-triggers everything."

In fact, Gilleran has gone for a walk during the showing during the past two film festivals that GONE has screened, returning to take part in the question-and-answer sessions that have followed.

"That's been fine; I don't have a problem talking about what happened or answering questions. That's been pretty easy for me to do," Gilleran said. "The questions are always good questions from the audience. People are very respectful and that's not an uncomfortable thing.

While there is a therapeutic aspect to speaking, Gilleran said, there is a flip side to that.

"It's therapeutic, you get kind of an adrenaline rush. People care, they're interested, they want to be able to help and want to know more," she said. "That feels really good. For a day or two, that adrenaline rush is there.

"Then there's the dump and I'm still at the same point where I don't have my son," Gilleran added. "I don't have any answers. It's kind of a mixed bag."

And there are no new leads or information either.

The first time Gilleran traveled to Austria, she met with police to discuss the case and found them unresponsive and uninterested in talking with her much. In the ensuing years, they have declined to meet with her at all. She expects the same situation during her upcoming visit to Vienna for a screening of the film there, which will take place shortly before the fourth anniversary of Aeryn's disappearance.

Gilleran is hopeful the showing of GONE at Viennale will create some movement on the investigation into Aeryn's disappearance.

"I think the fact it's going to be showing in Vienna, it will put pressure on police and the government, at least for the case to be handed over to the cold case commission," she said. "Two years ago, they (Austrian police) started a cold case squad and they announced that Aeryn's case was second on the list. It was in a major newspaper there and my friends contacted me. I contacted the Austrian desk office and in four to five days, the police responded to a friend in Vienna, not to me, and they said it wasn't true and that the newspaper had lied.

"Why, when they have all these missing people, would they (the newspaper) pick Aeryn? Why, all of a sudden, would they quote the head of the cold case commission saying that the second case will be the case of a missing American, Aeryn Gillern?" Gilleran added. "Hopefully, this (documentary) will put the case in front of the eyes of somebody who's not tainted, someone who won't stonewall me or cover it up."

Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but it's a glimmer that keeps Gilleran somewhat hopeful.

"I hate to say it's my last hope, but I think it's my biggest hope at this point," Gilleran said. "If someone will come forward, if someone gets a conscience and comes forward, then maybe we can find out what happened.

"I won't give up," she added. "I will be there for the fourth anniversary of his disappearance and I will hold my vigil directly across the street from the sauna where he was last seen."

For more information about GONE, visit its website at www.gone-film.com.

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