Denver Filmmaker Takes Homelessness and Violence from Street to Screen

By Matthew Van Deventer

Image courtesy of Denver Film Company

About five years ago Denver filmmaker and owner of Denver Film Company Gabriel Dohrn was sitting at a stop light when a homeless man came up to his window to ask him for change. Dohrn brushed him off and the homeless man said, “You just think this could never happen to you.” Today, Dohrn says, “I think I was taken aback because I think he was right.” 

The experience largely inspired Dohrn’s recent film American Bystander, which premiered last month at the Oaxacan Film Festival in Oaxaca, Mexico. The full-length feature depicts a homeless man, Hopper, who lives on the streets of Denver with a tight-knit community of other people experiencing homelessness who live under a city bridge. As the film unfolds the audience learns each character’s backstory, including Hopper’s.

Dohrn says that while he has his own views, the film is not meant to make a stand, but to encourage conversation and humanize victims of violent crime, homelessness, homophobia, and even police brutality. In keeping with these altruistic motives, 100 percent of the film’s proceeds will be donated to the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

For a year after the stoplight encounter, Dohrn researched homelessness in Denver, often spending time with people on the streets. He realized that everyone he spoke to had a unique story. During that time he worked on character development and began formulating ideas for what is now American Bystander

Sadly, it took the 2012 Aurora Theatre shooting for Dohrn to come up with a catalyst for his main character’s homelessness. Dohrn’s friend and five others—including the friend’s pregnant wife—were all in the Century theatre during the attack. One friend was shot in the hand, the pregnant woman took shrapnel from a smoke bomb, and another individual died. 

The morning after the Aurora shooting, a song came pouring out of Dohrn. He titled it “Dark Night,” and it would eventually become the song for American Bystander.

The stories of the six people Dohrn knew in the Aurora theatre were folded together to make up the tale of American Bystander’s protagonist Hopper, a widower with a scar on his hand. Hopper’s pregnant wife dies in the Aurora theatre shooting, and the trauma he experiences after the tragic event ultimately leads to his homelessness. 

In the movie Hopper suffers from PTSD and has traumatic flashbacks as he sees headlines of the theatre shooter’s trial in the newspapers or hears people talking about it in passing conversation. Although the actual trial coincided with the filming of American Bystander, Dohrn managed to shoot the film without mentioning the shooter’s name.

For Dohrn, the title American Bystander is an acknowledgment that we are inundated with so much trauma and violence that we become numb to it, and things like homelessness and gun violence become “issues” instead of reality.  Dohrn hopes to pose a question to the audience of American Bystander: “Are we willing to do anything about it or are we going to stand on the sidelines?” ■

The Denver Film Company is running an Indiegogo campaign through the middle of November. If you’re interested in supporting the film and cause you can find more information at  indiegogo.com/projects/american-bystander-movie-film#