“I would define ableism as discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. It’s so insidious and it’s so deeply ingrained in all of us. I really wanted to highlight how an ableist society makes disabled people feel. The film touches on physical barriers and access, but it’s much more about attitudes and the value system that surrounds disabled people.”

Ella Glendining

Ella Glendining as a person and a filmmaker is my hero because of what she is bringing to the screen, which is groundbreaking and brave. It’s groundbreaking because she is a physically disabled person behind the camera bringing authentic stories about disabled people onscreen. She is brave because she shows the honest resilience of herself and of disabled people reflected in an ableist society, a society that is dedicated to “fixing” what does not appear to be physically normal. In her documentary “Is There Anybody Out There?”, Ella searches for people who share a similar disability to her in order to connect on a personal level, but also to reflect the ableist society we live in

Ella dives into some painful places during the five-year span of making this documentary. The film starts pre-pandemic and shortly after the film production kicks off, she finds out she is pregnant. Throughout the course of the documentary, we see her become a mother and see her child grow. This new role in her life made the film even more personal to her, and immensely powerful for us. Ella was able to attend Sundance and participate in a post-screening Q&A. I spoke with her after Sundance once she was back at her home in the UK. I’m so happy we connected and thrilled to share more with our readers about her experience in making this soul-baring film.

Ella Glendining

What brought you to this project?

I’ve always been very interested in the experience of alienation, essentially what it is to exist in a non-disabled world as a disabled person, and also looking very unusual, because I do. Initially, I thought I’d make a film about people with very rare conditions, and very unusual looking bodies. But then I realized that I personally had a story to tell, so the film gradually became more and more personal. 

Can you talk about ableism and what that means to you?

I would define ableism as discrimination and prejudice against disabled people. It’s so insidious and it’s so deeply ingrained in all of us. I really wanted to highlight how an ableist society makes disabled people feel. The film touches on physical barriers and access, but it’s much more about attitudes and the value system that surrounds disabled people. 

Can you talk about the trajectory of this project and what you learned in the process? 

I learned so much and it was filmed over such a long time, five years. I think I probably inherently deep down always knew that it was going to be a film about ableism, but also a celebration of disabled kinship within the disabled community. That’s what this film is for me. But what I didn’t expect was that I was going to get pregnant, and that’s a whole other part to the story. And I truly didn’t know how I would feel if and when I did meet people with a body like mine. That aspect of the film was brand new for me. 

Ella Glendining as a child. © Pierce Warren

How was it meeting people who were more physically like you?

It was amazing, but it wasn’t what I expected. I think what I expected was to feel fireworks and this profound spiritual experience, like you would see in a movie, or something. And what I actually found was just as amazing. It was more a reminder of the power of the disabled community. The experience just woke me up to what I already had with me, as cliché as that sounds. I just felt so incredibly lucky to know and love other people who are like me who’ve experienced ableism, who’ve fought against it, and who are proud to be disabled.

Can you talk about the Facebook group you connected to, and your personal experience with them? I’d also like to hear your thoughts on Dr. Paley, who many people in the Facebook group talked about to “fix” their children. I love your perspective on all of this, like why do they need to change anything? They are beautiful as they are. 

I would describe this experience as soul-destroying. That may sound extreme, but that is how it feels. At the same time, I was really fighting against myself and my judgement of these parents who were saying “yes” to surgery for their disabled kids. It’s so hard because this Facebook group is full of people discussing the best treatments, and I’m somebody just like their children who hasn’t had any treatment. It feels like they are saying there is something wrong with you and you need to change.

I felt judged, but equally, I had to remember that we are all victims of ableism in an ableist society. That was the biggest struggle when making the film in that I wanted to talk about this issue because I felt like it is important, but at the same time, I didn’t want to judge the parents. I definitely have compassion for them, and I hope that came across. I hope I got that balance right. For example, there is my interview with the Australian mom Renee McCann and her little girl. Her daughter had surgery, and I spoke with her right before she went into surgery. I really like Renee, and I don’t judge her at all. I really hope I’m able to get my point across in a nuanced way, and that it does not come across as judgmental. 

Still from “Is There Anybody Out There?” Ella Glendining © Annemarie Lean-Vercoe

Can you talk about your cinematographer, Annmarie Lean-Vercoe? How did she come on board and how was it working with her?

My cinematographer is amazing. When I got development funding from the BFI Doc Society, it was just me and my idea. They helped me find a producer, Janine Marmot. Through Janine, I was connected with Annemarie, who lives in my area. She is so incredibly talented, and was perfect for the job. She’s so instinctual. I really liked how she filmed me. There’s nothing gratuitous ever. She just saw me for me, and filmed me for me. I really appreciate that. 

I love how your documentary is about you, but you also refer back to different times in history and how disabled people have been represented onscreen, such as when you showed a clip from the 1932 Todd Browning film “Freaks” and when you shared parts of the 1972 documentary “A Day in the Life of Kevin Donnellon.” It seemed so cruel how the people in Kevin’s life treated him, even family members like his mother. But when you did a Zoom with him as an adult today, you see he is living his best life with two children and a wife. I definitely got emotional watching that scene.

Disabled people are so resilient and disabled children have to be so resilient. I’m really interested in the resilience of disabled children. I remember so clearly how quickly I had to let the nasty comments brush off of me and how I felt I had to be the class clown to survive. You hear that so often in the disabled community. You become so tough. So it’s just infuriating that disabled people are so often vandalized and we have to be so strong, you know?

Ella Glendining with friend Naomi Bethell © Annemarie Lean-Vercoe

I love how you’re living your best life, and I love how you bring your friend into it who’s autistic and is also working on living her best self. Can you talk about that?

Thank you so much for bringing that up. I absolutely love Naomi in the film. I’m eternally grateful that she was willing to bear her soul for this film. She really believes in it. We both support each other in our work, and I am so grateful to her. Along with my own disability, it was so important for me to also talk about invisible disabilities, because there is a lot of stigma against invisible disabilities and mental health conditions. I always have thought our connection is amazing because our experiences are so different. She is very conventionally attractive, and you would never think there was anything “wrong” with her, as she struggles with things that I wouldn’t struggle with, yet I look different. 

I always thought it was fascinating how we connected and how we deeply understand each other even though on the surface, you’d think we have very different experiences. Ableism is ableism and it effects us in similar ways. And that is what made us both so strong and made both of us feel so connected. 

What do you hope people see in this film? 

In my film, I’m simply trying to humanize disabled people, and present disabled people as fully rounded human beings with just as much worth as non-disabled people. That’s all I’m trying to the say with the film. It shouldn’t be groundbreaking stuff, but I hope it is.

It is!

Thank you! But there is so much bigotry towards disabled people. So much of it is shrouded in something else, like you might not recognize it as ableism. I hope it’s powerful seeing me as disabled and proud, and also just being very human and flawed as well as a bad ass.

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.

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