Ella Glendining Talks Disability Doc ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’



Ella Glendining is both the director and subject of documentary “Is There Anybody Out There?,” a global search for someone with a body that looks like hers.

The film debuted at Sundance this year and went on to achieve global acclaim, winning a slew of awards along the way. Recent accolades include winning the BFI and Chanel Filmmaker Award and being named as one of the U.K. talents in the BAFTA Breakthrough 2023 cohort.

“A big thing for me making a personal film was that I was insecure and worried that people would think that I was just the subject of a documentary, but to be recognized on this level is an incredible confidence boost in terms of me as a filmmaker, because that’s who I am. What I am first and foremost is a filmmaker and a storyteller,” Glendining, who was born with a rare leg disability, told Variety.

“I’m not interested in just talking about disability. That to me is boring. I’m interesting in telling amazing stories that happen to disabled characters. That’s what my documentary is and what all my work will continue to be,” Glendining added. “And I think that’s more radical really than just trying to make your point or make a political statement.”

The film is structured as an exploration of what it takes to love yourself fiercely as a disabled person in an ableist world.

“It was a very challenging process, even though it was dreamlike in a good way in other ways. The big challenges were internal challenges – being worried about offending people, it’s controversial and I’m saying things that no one’s dared to say, or nobody has yet been able to say, on such a scale,” Glendining said. “I really wanted this film to be a battle cry for disabled people. And I also didn’t want to alienate non-disabled people. And I really didn’t want to upset for example, parents of disabled children. I knew that it was gonna upset some people. When you’re really calling something out in a way that people aren’t used to, it’s confronting. And I just care about people’s feelings. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. But I also really wanted to say what I had to say.”

The film also explores the experience of being a disabled pregnant woman as well as the emotional process of becoming a mother, when Glendining unexpectedly finds out she is pregnant.

“I became very unwell when I was pregnant, which you see a bit of in the film, and yet, not sure how much of that to include during the edit, having to let go of my ego and see myself as a character rather than myself – that was another big challenge. But, it was all such an amazing learning experience. And I’m really proud of it,” Glendining said.

Besides the awards and accolades, “Is There Anybody Out There?” has had an impact in the real world with disabled audience members telling Glendining that they found the film to be “life changing” and non-disabled audiences finding it “incredibly eye opening” and has “changed the way that they see disability,” the filmmaker said.

A huge inspiration for Glendining is James LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham’s 2020 documentary “Crip Camp,” with the filmmaker describing LeBrecht as a “father of the community.” Glendining also hails the work of disabled filmmaker Kyla Harris, who has been commissioned by the BBC for comedy drama “We Might Regret This,” where the protagonist, played by Harris, is an artist and tetraplegic.

“I definitely feel strongly that there’s a shift happening in the industry at the moment, where previously, I’ve had doors slammed in my face immediately. People really want to hear what I’m saying now. And it’s not just me and it’s not just the success of my film, I don’t think, although obviously, that’s helpful,” Glendining said. “Finally, disability is not being left out of conversations about diversity. And I think people are actually ready to experience authentic disabled storytelling in a way that they haven’t ever been perhaps.”

Glendining has previously written and directed scripted shorts and is now writing her first fiction feature “Curiosities of a Fool,” which she will also direct. The film is partly financed by the BFI Film Fund and will be produced by “Is There Anybody Out There?” producer Janine Marmot. The 1600s-set historical drama takes place in the court of King Charles I and follows Richard Gibson, a talented artist and a court dwarf.

“It’s really about his journey to overcoming his internalized ableism and finding community with the court fools of the palace, so it’s really similar themes to my documentary but a very different story,” Glendining said. “It’s a big, dramatic, heartfelt historical drama that’s about ableism and disabled kinship. I think it’s something that nobody’s ever done before. And I’m incredibly excited.”


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