Is There Anybody Out There? – The New Documentary Tackling Ableism
By the age of 26, filmmaker Ella Glendining had never met anyone else with her condition – she was born without hip joints and very short thigh bones – so she decided she’d try to find them. Her debut documentary Is There Anybody Out There? depicts that search, taking Glendining from her home in England to America and, more poignantly, on a personal journey of self-discovery.
“I’d known for a while that I wanted to make a film about existing in an extremely unusual-looking body,” she tells me over Zoom. “I wanted to explore ableism [discrimination and social prejudice against people with physical or mental disabilities] and what it’s like to live in a non-disabled world as a Disabled person, as I was sick of Disabled people not being given the agency to tell their own stories. But I also ended up making a very personal film.”
Childhood home videos featuring interviews with her parents and diary entries in the form of short clips – such as when Glendining finds out that she’s pregnant – are peppered throughout Is There Anybody Out There?, offering a candid, intimate glimpse of her life.
In the film, Glendining calls out the pressure to conform to what society considers “normal” and challenges the idea that extensive surgery is the only “solution” for those born like her. This is something she comes across while talking to numerous parents of Disabled children, as well as with Dr Dror Paley, a surgeon who specialises in ‘limb lengthening, deformity correction and pediatric orthopedics’ in South Florida.
“I love and respect my body,” Glendining says at one point in the film. “Being this way is not the problem.” That, ultimately, is the underlying message of her powerfully honest documentary.
“I never gave much thought to how I looked until I started school, and I definitely found it hard, being different,” Glendining says. “But I’ve always had this solid foundation of self-love – thanks partly to the fact that my parents accepted me, which should not be rocket science, but it’s so important. I’ve always believed that when people laughed at me, it was them who had an issue. As my friend Noemi [who’s autistic] says in the doc, the world would be worse off without Disabled people.”
Still, as Glendining’s film reveals, much still needs to change. “Ableism is forever a challenge,” she says, highlighting the need for improvements in education and the workplace. Working on the documentary “made me realise that even I had internalised [ableism]”, she says. “When I discovered I was expecting, I became so obsessed with having a natural birth – as if anything else would make me ‘less’ of a mother and a person. That comes from years of being made to feel like disability is a negative thing. We still have a lot to do in that sense.”
Her hope is for the film to humanise Disabled people. “We are a rich, diverse community,” she says. “And while we are seeing a shift happening within the creative space, with more Disabled creatives finally being given opportunities, many people still don’t know how to look at us or interact with us. What I’d like to tell them with this film is ‘look, we’re just human beings’.”
Is There Anybody Out There? by Ella Glendining is available to watch in UK cinemas and at home via Conic from 17 November 2023
Ella Glendining’s 5 Resources That Celebrate Differently Abled People
- Disability Arts Online – A platform and journal led by Disabled people to advance disability arts and culture.
- Year Of The Tiger by Alice Wong – A book of original essays, conversations, arts and photos on life as an Asian-American Disabled activist by the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project.
- Fragmented Life by Carolyn Reed & Reanna Valentine – A touching book of poems written in the span of 50 years between a grandmother (Reed) and a grandchild (Disabled creative Valentine).
- We Might Regret This – A soon-to-be-released comedy drama by Disabled activist Kyla Harris for the BBC. It’s going to be groundbreaking.
- The Sexual Politics Of Disability by Tom Shakespeare – One of my favourite books, it touches on civil rights, gender, individual freedom, disability and sexuality.
Marianna Cerini is a freelance writer for publications including Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, CNN Style and Fortune