'It became so much more personal than I was expecting'

Ella Glendining chats about Sundance doc Is There Anybody Out There?

by Amber Wilkinson

Ella Glendining in Is There Anybody Out There? Glendining: 'What I wanted with this film is for it to really humanise disabled people. And when I say humanise disabled people, I mean in every sense'
Ella Glendining in Is There Anybody Out There? Glendining: 'What I wanted with this film is for it to really humanise disabled people. And when I say humanise disabled people, I mean in every sense' Photo: Annemarie Lean-Vercoe
Ella Glendining is both in front of and behind the camera in Sundance World Cinema Documentary contender Is There Anybody Out There? In it she begins to conduct a search for other people with the same rare condition as herself, which means she has no hip bones and shortened femurs. As her hunt begins she also falls unexpectedly pregnant, so that story also becomes a part of the narrative.speaks We also see her travel to the US as she interrogates issues around ableism and representation and speaks to parents who have opted for surgery for their children, including little Australian Dylan, with similar conditions. We caught up with Glendining ahead of the film’s screenings to chat to her about it

Through the film, the importance of role models and seeing yourself represented runs through what you're saying. What you think the world should be doing to make disability more visible and attitudes less ableist.

Ella Glendining: I think that attitudes and access are completely intertwined. So the fact is, the world isn't set up for disabled people, physical access is not where it needs to be. And yeah, attitudes as a result of that - or the other way around - are also not where they need to be. What I wanted with this film is for it to really humanise disabled people. And when I say humanise disabled people, I mean in every sense. For example, there was a debate over whether we should show me smoking in the film, because that's not good role model behavior. Like it's not good for my son to see me smoking or for any younger people to see me smoking. But the truth is, when do you ever see disabled people behaving badly? Literally never. Because we're either saints or we're completely infantilised. So that's my goal with the film.

One of the things that comes across in the film is the complexity of a lot of these issues. One of the strengths of your movie is that you allow for a lot of complexity, including around the issue of surgery.

EG: With the surgery element, I didn't know when I first started making the film that I was gonna touch on that at all. I really didn't know where it was gonna leave me. Probably my biggest kind of internal struggle when making the film was that I didn't want to come across as judgmental, or as seeing the issue as black and white, because it's really not black and white. I mean, ableism is so entrenched. And like you see in the interview with Dylan and her mum in Australia, Dylan was in pain. It wasn't just cosmetic, and her mum wanted her to not be in pain. Whether or not she's now not in pain, I'm not actually sure. But it's so complex and I'm so glad that you think that we handled it in a nuanced way because that was my biggest fear - that I would come across as judgmental towards people who chose that path.

Naomi Bethell and Ella Glendining in Is There Anybody Out There? Glendining: 'If I had known someone like me, when I was a child, an adult like me, yeah, it would have changed my life completely. And that's why I'm so passionate about positive disability representation in film'
Naomi Bethell and Ella Glendining in Is There Anybody Out There? Glendining: 'If I had known someone like me, when I was a child, an adult like me, yeah, it would have changed my life completely. And that's why I'm so passionate about positive disability representation in film'

I got the impression you were even maybe quite surprised when you met Dr Paley. Perhaps you thought that was going to be different to the encounter that you have.

EG: I did say at the time that I was surprised, because I did find him charming. I think that's what I meant. I found him charming. I didn't think he would be an evil man or anything. I think it's quite obvious really what my position on this issue is, and I sort of allow my mum to say in the film, 'I feel like if ain't broke, don't fix it'. I didn't think that Dr. Paley was a nasty man and I liked his funny socks with the palm trees on. But I didn't like him either. I'm not gonna lie, like, we would never be friends.

It's a very honest and open film generally from your perspective, and I wonder if there was ever a moment when you thought, 'Oh God, I really just want to put this camera away.'

EG: Yeah, it became so much more personal than I was expecting. Funnily enough, though, I was so up for filming when I was in hospital ill, when I was pregnant, I was so up for filming, even when I had the baby. Like, as soon as I found out I was pregnant, one of my first thoughts was, 'Oh, we're going to film the birth, how exciting'. It was actually, when we went to meet Dr Paley that I was the most nervous and sort of wanted to put the camera away. Because, again, it came back to that thing of not wanting to seem judgmental, and I had such strong views on it. I just didn't know how that interview was going to go. And that's when I felt like I wished I wasn't doing this, but I'm glad I did. And also, when I met up with Priscilla, Ricardo and Charlie - the three people with my condition who I met in Texas. That was so funny because there was half an hour when we all got together when I just suddenly thought we are just a bunch of random people, what have I done? I've just bought these random people together. And no one really has anything to say to each other. But we did in the end.

In a way, it goes without saying that everybody is different even if we look the same on some outward level. But equally, it really comes across quite strongly how important Ricardo is to Charlie, in that he is seeing a sort of role model for himself to a degree and that and that reflection is important, particularly maybe for children, maybe more so than somebody of your age, for example.

EG: That was powerful to see. As a mother it was so powerful to see Chelsea, Charlie's mum, get so emotional watching them together. Yeah, it really brought it home for me. And it's true, I think. I think Ricardo said this in the film, I asked him about it. But if I had known someone like me, when I was a child, an adult like me, yeah, it would have changed my life completely. And that's why I'm so passionate about positive disability representation in film. Because, again, if I'd seen a character with a disability like mine, even just on telly, when I was growing up, that would have changed my life.

Ella Glendining: 'Deciding how much of my childhood and relationship to my parents to put in the film, and I hope, again, that we've got a nice balance'
Ella Glendining: 'Deciding how much of my childhood and relationship to my parents to put in the film, and I hope, again, that we've got a nice balance'

Did have any role models as you were starting out on your filmmaking journey?

EG: There are lots of disabled icons and I do have disabled heroes. I love telly and film a lot and there are some actors, for example, Ruth Madeley. She's been sort of a known actor for about a decade or something and she's a wheelchair user, but she's really talented and she has had some roles where her disability is just incidental, which is so refreshing. Not as a kid, though. If I look back to my childhood, off the top of my head I can't remember anyone that I really idolised or disabled role models, because there literally wasn't anyone.

The film is also honest and open in terms of what your mum and dad say. All your family relationships are kind of exposed there as well.

EG: They were very supportive. I'm not sure that they had any inkling that it would be in Sundance when it was finished but yeah, they were really supportive. They always are. And that was another very difficult thing. Deciding how much of my childhood and relationship to my parents to put in the film, and I hope, again, that we've got a nice balance. We got really vulnerable in the interviews. And in my video diaries, I talked about the darkest moments in my childhood and everything. That stuff didn't make it in and it's very right that it didn't make it in. I think you get a really good sense of how amazing but equally human my parents are, it was very important to me that they didn't come across as heroic, because they are just human. But equally, where would I be without their sort of acceptance of me, just as I am?

It must be quite difficult to decide what to keep in and what to leave out.

GE: Yeah, it was so hard, the editing was such a whirlwind. Oh, my goodness. It was so hard. I think it's a really personal film. It's really honest, like you say, it's really intimate. But everything I put in the film had to be relevant to the story of the film. It just became a sort of powerful realisation for me when I was editing with my editor, Rachel Roberts. There's loads of really beautiful scenes with my dad. For example, there's a really lovely scene where he's feeding a baby blackbird in the garden and he's talking about how the male and the female blackbird share the childcare. It's such a beautiful scene, but it just wasn't relevant enough to the story of the film, which is, you know, about ableism.

I noticed that the film's carrying a memoriam to Karen Bethel. I wondered Is that Naomi's mum?

GE: Yes, I wasn't expecting you to ask me that. It's incredibly sad and, of course, incredibly difficult for Naomi on so many levels. We discussed what we should include related to her mum in the film and we wanted to mention that her mom was her carer. I loved Karen very much and she she watched the film before she died, which is like, so amazing. And she was so proud of Naomi. I'm really glad she watched the film. She loved it.

I wanted to finish by asking you about some of the fiction work that you're doing. I see you've done A Pyramid Of Disunion that's going to come to Channel Four, is that right?

EG: Yeah, that's right. It's a short that's completely different from anything I've made before. It's a comedy about a disabled woman who joins an eco community and bumps into an old flame.

And can I ask you as well about Curiosities Of Fools, the historical fiction feature that you're working on, which also sounds absolutely fascinating.

EG:We've got funding from the BFI to write the script and, yes, it's a historical drama about the life of a court dwarf in the 17th century. It's a story I made up but it's based on a real man. I'm really excited because fiction is my biggest love, and I love writing. And it's also terrifying, because I know nothing about history. But I'm really excited.

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