Under ordinary circumstances, the fine folks at Indy's Heartland International Film Festival would wait until after the official awards ceremony and until festival's end to award the fest's valued audience awards. However, by the time the Awards Ceremony rolled around this year first-time feature filmmaker Ashton Gleckman's We Shall Not Die Now was already a lock for the prize and took home the first of the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival's Audience Award prizes.
If you're even remotely familiar with Gleckman, you're not even remotely surprised.
Recognized for his immense musical talents starting at the age of six, the recently turned 19-year-old Carmel, Indiana resident has released three albums, written and directed five short films, composed scores for a number of productions, and co-founded the Global Composers Network where he has interviewed the likes of Oscar-nominated Marco Beltrami, Grammy-nominated Benjamin Wallfisch, Dominic Lewis, The Newton Brothers, and others. In 2018, Gleckman's work was discovered by Hans Zimmer leading to Gleckman's work for Zimmer's companies Remote Control Productions and Bleeding Fingers Music before he returned home and set his sights on We Shall Not Die Now.
Yet, if you were to meet Ashton Gleckman, as I did today during Heartland's Awards Ceremony, you'd find a surprisingly humble young man who seems more than a little bit in awe of this life he's living and the opportunities that surround him.
With all these successes, it's not particularly surprising that Gleckman would eventually tackle a feature film as is the case with We Shall Not Die Now, a feature-length documentary screening in the Indiana Spotlight block of films during the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival where it picked up, yes, the fest's Audience Award in advance of its L.A. premiere on December 3rd and a planned release on Amazon and iTunes on December 5th.
What may be surprising is that Gleckman such difficult subject matter as the Holocaust for his debut feature film. We Shall Not Die Now tells stories that we'd swear we'd heard before, yet in We Shall Not Die Now they feel fresh and heartbreaking and devastating. Gleckman directed, filmed, edited, and scored We Shall Not Die Now. It was a journey that took him to Poland for a couple of weeks where he traveled alone and filmed as a one-man crew constructing this immensely moving, award-winning feature doc. Grammy nominated composer Benjamin Wallfisch (It, Blade Runner 2049, Hidden Figures) composed the film's main theme, an effort dedicated to his Holocaust surviving grandmother.
While tackling the Holocaust may seem unusual for such a young filmmaker, Gleckman has long studied the Holocaust and has already scored two documentaries on the subject matter. For We Shall Not Die Now, he traveled to Poland to spend time filming at all of the concentration camps. He interviewed 25 Holocaust survivors and liberators in 10 states, contacted synagogues nationwide, researched archives in Washington, D.C., and even interviewed the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials.
To say that We Shall Not Die Now is well researched is an understatement.
However, the real beauty of We Shall Not Die Now lies precisely in how Gleckman constructs the film and brings stories to life that deserve to be brought to life. This is completed partly through actual interviews and partly through archival footage and interviews, yet it's the way that Gleckman weaves it all together, at times even moving between color and black-and-white, that ultimately makes We Shall Not Die Now such a beautiful and compelling film.
We Shall Not Die Now also doesn't forget the "other" victims and survivors of the Holocaust. As an adult with a disability myself, I've long been aware of the genocidal annihilation of nearly all people with disabilities. Of course, there were others. So many others.
Divided into different sections, an approach that can backfire but largely works here, We Shall Not Die Now is a well organized exploration of both the best and the worst of humanity. While there's obvious editing here, the stories in We Shall Not Die Now never feel manufactured or manipulated. Instead, they feel like the confident work of a patient filmmaker whom, I'm guessing, genuinely enjoys providing people the opportunities to tell their stories.
That love shines through.
Gleckman's original score for the film serves as an emotionally grounded companion, while Wallfisch's main theme provides the film its atmospheric core.
It's difficult to describe the experience of watching We Shall Not Die Now, though perhaps it's best described as possessing both moments of intense sorrow and grief and shards of light and hope and even a little exhilaration. The film is both a reminder of the devastating impact of hate and the overwhelming, awe-inspiring impact of love to overcome it.
For more information on We Shall Not Die Now, visit the film's Facebook page linked to in the credits. For more information on Heartland International Film Festival, visit the Heartland Film website.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic