Is There Anybody Out There? from Brighton-based director Ella Glendining is a self-professed love letter to the disabled community and anyone who has ever felt other. It is a formidable debut feature by a filmmaker who has refused to allow society’s expectations or prejudices about her disability to stand in her way, instead using her tenacity to build a career in a notoriously difficult and ableist industry. Feeling that she was at the right moment in her career and wanting to build upon a lifelong gnawing desire to find someone with her same rare disability, Glendining, with the support of the BFI Doc Society, embarked upon an emotional four year journey to tell her story. Is There Anybody Out There? follows the filmmaker’s global search for someone who may have experienced life from the same vantage point she has and over the course of the film takes us on a powerful journey of moving discoveries, sad truths and poignant intimate moments whilst remaining true to her own fierce love and acceptance of herself. With Is There Anybody Out There? released in UK cinemas by Conic Films last week and the film’s two nominations for the upcoming BIFA awards (Best Debut Director – Feature Documentary and The Raindance Maverick Award) we spoke to Glendining about finding out she was pregnant shifting the trajectory of the film, weaving together the patchwork feel of all of the distinct elements and the challenges selecting the right archival footage which worked within the overall premise of the documentary.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

How does it feel to have your voice out there and for your film to be recognised and reaching some many people?

It feels great and I’m very excited. I suppose I don’t really know what to expect, but I know that the film already is really touching the disabled community which was my main goal and has been such a beautiful outcome. So if it can keep doing that, I just want it to be seen by as many people as possible. It feels amazing. It’s exciting, but also very surreal.

Whilst you have previously dealt with disability in your work it has been more fiction-centric. How did you find the move into documentary filmmaking?

I’d previously made one short documentary and a few fiction shorts. It felt like the right time to make my first feature and I knew I had a very unique and interesting story to tell. It just felt natural and it also felt very much still storytelling, particularly in the edit. It didn’t feel too different from fiction.

When I got the initial development funding from BFI Doc Society, they helped me find a producer and after speaking to a few different people I ended up working with Janine Marmot who I just clicked with right away. I just could tell that she got my vision and me as a person as well. The production of this film was more professional than the projects I’d worked on in the past but it was easier, I was working with the best people. Janine was amazing and then I had an amazing DOP, Annemarie Lean-Vercoe, who was very experienced. I also worked with editor Rachel Roberts for whom it was also her first feature – I got lucky with an amazing team.

I don’t think it really hit me how exposing it would feel but equally how it was going to touch people.

Premiering at Sundance is such a coup, how was your experience at the festival?

I’m almost still not over the fact that the film got into Sundance. It was always the dream to get in, but also quite a far-fetched dream so I was so happy when I found out that we’d got in. The screenings were amazing, I don’t think it really hit me how exposing it would feel, but equally how it was going to touch people. People loved it and it was packed and wonderful.

You mentioned there about it being exposing. This is such a personal story where you find out you were pregnant during the production, did that change the trajectory of what you had planned?

In a way I didn’t have much planned at the beginning and I was quite open to where this journey would take me. I knew it was going to be broadly about my search for other people with the same disability as me and I also knew that I wanted to shine a light on ableism and to make it a really celebratory film, a film celebrating the disabled community and giving other people in the community a voice. I did not expect to get pregnant and I found out almost immediately after I found out I got the development funding. It was not planned, it was not even on my bucket list even to have a child but I obviously decided to continue with the pregnancy and I realised that it had to be in the film. It was clearly going to add something and then as I got more and more pregnant and started reflecting on my own childhood and my own mother’s experience of being pregnant and how she must have felt when she found out that she was pregnant with a disabled child it suddenly felt like it was meant to be for the film. It felt really relevant and it’s also amazing that my son’s birth is in the film and I can show him that when he’s a bit older.

The birth scene is incredible. It is so intimate, so personal. How did it feel having cameras there and knowing that it was going to be in the film?

By that point it wasn’t a question in my mind, I just hoped that the crew and everyone behind the film would let this happen because it obviously had to. I wanted it in the film, maybe I’m an exhibitionist! I come across so calm in that scene and I actually was, it’s just a snapshot, not the entire birth, but I was so ready to meet him and having my producer and DOP there is kind of hilarious but it was really special and funny, they are almost like family now.

I always knew that the film was going to have a patchwork feel to it. I always knew there were going to be lots of different elements.

I wanted to speak to you about the whole look of the film which is visually stunning. How did you work together with cinematographer Annemarie Lean-Vercoe to develop a shared language and work on the tone that you wanted?

Annemarie is amazing, I really love her. We met very early on, she is a mum and I was pregnant at the time and we just clicked. She’s very calm and intuitive and I barely had to direct her, she’s just such a good cinematographer. I never felt like she got under my feet, which is funny because people really annoy me and get in my way all the time. I always knew that the film was going to have a patchwork feel to it. I always knew there were going to be lots of different elements, the video diaries, the archive footage and the childhood home video footage of me when I was little. I like that a lot of it is quite rough and then you get these really beautiful shots from Annemarie.

Talking about the footage, the home videos you’ve got are amazing and I also love the inclusion of the archival footage. Were there things that you found upsetting when you were researching and going through that material?

That’s interesting actually because today, for the first time in a long time, I was thinking back on some of the archives that didn’t make the cut. My editor and I watched loads of footage from disability history and there was a lot that was upsetting. Some of it’s in the film, there’s the girl who’s in a brace to have her body stretched and the original footage of Kevin. His story is amazing but just hearing how little faith his mum had in him and his future was heartbreaking. But the really upsetting stuff which didn’t make the cut was from institutions. It was so brutal and devastating. Whilst I’m sure there are great ones, I know that there are still homes for the disabled that are like that. We’ve heard on the news in recent years about abuse in such homes which hasn’t completely gone away and that made me very sad. We were going to use some of that footage to illustrate loneliness because that’s a lot of what was communicated in that archive but it ultimately just felt too sad for the film.

My editor and I watched loads of footage from disability history and there was a lot that was upsetting.

What’s the reaction to the film been like so far? It seems overwhelmingly positive, but as you well know we do still live in a very prejudiced world, have you had negative reactions?

I suppose I should be bracing myself for negative reactions now that the film is so widely available and I was just wondering if I’m going to get any hate. I’ve got a couple of bad reviews which I always get told not to talk about but I can’t help it, it’s real. Overall the reviews and reception have been amazing and in regards to the couple of bad ones, I find them ableist. They’re defensive responses to the film, saying I’m annoying and arrogant but I don’t care because that’s a compliment to me. When do disabled people ever get called annoying and arrogant? To be completely honest, I don’t’ really like reviews, even if it’s an absolutely shining five star review I don’t like it. I find them ableist even if they’re really nice, and I think that it’s just so deeply ingrained, using language that really doesn’t sit right with me and the disabled community, and missing the point of the film. I just think it’s interesting and it’s hard to get it right – ableism is just so deeply ingrained in all of us.

They’re defensive responses to the film, saying I’m annoying and arrogant but I don’t care because that’s a compliment to me. When do disabled people ever get called annoying and arrogant?

Can you talk to us about how long it took to make Is There Anybody Out There?

It was over four years and I knew it was going to take a long time. Part of the reason was obviously having a baby and then COVID but that didn’t stop me continuing making the film, just slowed things down a bit. I do think the film is richer for being over a large amount of time, the personal changes I go through and River growing up are all interesting and relevant to the story.

Congratulations on your two BIFA nominations. They celebrate British independent film and everything embodied in your film and you as a filmmaker. What do these nominations mean to you?

It’s such an honour. I was out with a friend when they were announcing the nominations and it has just been such a wonderful surprise and it’s so surreal. Equally it feels right, I am very ambitious and it makes sense to me. I’m really really excited for the awards and anything that will get people to watch this film. That’s my goal, I just want people to watch the film.

I think it’s really helped me to develop and solidify a distinctive voice as a filmmaker.

So what have you learned as a filmmaker from the making of this feature?

I’ve definitely learned loads about my strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker in a good and helpful way. I knew I wasn’t super technical, and that was confirmed. Equally, that’s why collaboration is so amazing. I think it’s really helped me to develop and solidify a distinctive voice as a filmmaker. I met up with one of my old film tutors the other day as he hosted a Q&A in my hometown where I went to university at Norwich University of the Arts and he noted how amazing it was to see my identity as a filmmaker which he could see in the film. It’s been really validating and a confidence boost to make something that feels so exactly as I imagined it.

What are you going to bring from the making of Is There Anybody Out There? into your next film?

I am bringing that grown confidence and also creative collaborators. I’m working with Janine Marmot as she’s producing my next film, my first fiction feature film. A historical drama about the life of a court dwarf in the 1600s. It’s about his journey to overcoming his own internalised ableism and finding community with the court fools of the palace. He works in a disabled theatre troupe and he’s an artist for the Queen, yet he sees himself as above them. He loses favour with the Queen and goes to live with the menagerie of curiosities and fools and he falls in love with these disabled people. Very similar themes but a totally different setting. It’s going to be mental!

What research have you had to do for that?

I have a script editor who has a history degree so he’s been quite helpful and I have read books about court dwarves of the time, some novels, some fiction and non-fiction. There are some famous court dwarfs from the period but I’m really playing with history. It’s not in any way historically accurate.

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