Priscilla Miranda and director Ella Glendining attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Is There Anybody Out There?” Premiere at Prospector Square Theatre on January 22, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
By Aliese Muhonen
Ella Glendining is very comfortable in her own skin.
From the first moments of her documentary — which opens with her performing an edgy modern dance improvisation — it’s clear that Glendining is different and proud of it.
The Norfolk-born filmmaker is warm and witty, tattooed and pierced, highly creative and naturally funny. An example: she frequently invites the people she interviews to toss back a glass of wine, no matter the time of day (can we join?).
But those unique traits are often overlooked due to her appearance. Her body, by her own description, is “shockingly different” as a result of extremely short femurs and missing hip joints. It’s a congenital disability so rare that no statistics on it exist.
“I’ve found ways to celebrate my freakishness,” she says in a voiceover. “But, still, that feeling of being the only one in the room, it’s all I know.”
Prior to making the documentary, she had never seen another person with a body like hers — in life or on film. Determined to find other people with the condition, Glendining posted a picture of herself in a disability support group on Facebook. “Is there anybody out there with legs like this?!” she wrote.
Her post was the catalyst of a four-year search for kinship, depicted with raw honesty and thought-provoking charisma in Is There Anybody Out There? The film follows Glendining’s journey across the world and deep into the complexities of the disabled community, and premiered January 22 in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
While her quest for community is the driving force of the story, “it’s really about ableism,” she says in a Meet the Artist video interview. “[It’s] about living as a disabled person in a nondisabled world, and what it takes to love yourself fiercely despite this. It is my love letter to the disabled community and its allies.”
That letter weaves together footage from throughout Glendining’s life, along with interviews with her parents (whose candid support is another highlight), friends, physicians, and archival scenes from vintage British documentaries on children with disabilities. (The last of which “horrified” Glendining with their objectifying and negative messages).
Is There Anybody Out There? is also an education for nondisabled people. Glendining takes viewers on a tour of daily life with her disability, showing both the physical difficulties (light switches are too high, countertops too tall), and the emotional (people’s stares, employment discrimination, and hurtful language).
At the Q&A following the premiere, the audience applauded Glendining’s vulnerability and willingness to address difficult topics in the film, which she admits was “very exposing.” Surprise guest Priscilla Miranda — a woman with a disability who Glendining meets in the film — says Glendining captured the complex feelings involved with being disabled, many of which Miranda has never even told her own family. “All of the things that Ella was sharing are the things that I feel too, but don’t necessarily share; the loneliness, the [question of] ‘Is there anybody out there like me?’”
Perhaps most affecting are the provocative questions Glendining asks herself (and by default, viewers).
Should people with disabilities be “fixed” with surgery or other interventions? Can they work, marry and be parents themselves? And the most difficult of all: should disabled people not be born?
We won’t spoil it, but Glendining finds unexpected answers in a series of bittersweet and heartening surprises (have tissues handy).
There’s no one else exactly like Ella Glendining. But the world could use a lot more people like her.