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Meet Ella Glendining, a Female Filmmaker Crushing Ableism in Hollywood One Film at a Time

by Miette Dsouza

Disabled, queer filmmaker, Ella Glendining, talks us through her tango with ableism on and off-screen and the journey of filming her debut documentary, 'Is There Anybody Out There?', a love letter to the disabled community.

As the mellow beats of alternative rock music play in the background, Ella Glendining, a filmmaker and director, takes centre stage dancing to CAKE’s Frank Sinatra in her bedroom. 

She shows off her funky dance moves as she enthusiastically freestyles to the strumming of the guitar. But almost immediately I am transported back in time as the picture on screen shifts to grainy footage of a VHS tape accompanied by the familiar buzz of static. 

A home movie of baby Ella appears on my laptop screen, and she retains the same vivacity as she frolics in her home garden. Little did baby Ella anticipate that she would be starring in an award-winning feature film decades later which has even received a British Independent Film Awards (BIFA) nomination.

In the little village of Elsing in Norfolk, Ella Glendining grew up with a rare disability where she has short legs and has to use a wheelchair.

“I was always aware of being perceived as very different. Not seeing people that looked like me on TV growing up definitely affected me and it didn’t help to normalise my disability in any way. But like many disabled people, I got through it by being a class clown as a child. I was very popular and had lots of friends, but I was also bullied, which is an odd combination,” says Ella, who acquired a degree in Film Production from Norwich University of the Arts in 2017.

She adds, “It was the experience of existing in an extremely unusual-looking body in an ableist world that first sparked the inspiration for Is There Anybody Out There?

Ella’s debut documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. The film chronicles her life over the course of four years as she tries to search for others who share her condition in the hope of finding something she felt was missing on both a physical and spiritual level.

Being an important contribution to current cinema that lacks in disabled representation, Ella admitted, “I didn't know it was going to be such a personal documentary at all initially. The most important aspect was and still is that I call out ableism and make something for the disabled community that speaks to us profoundly. I wanted to present disability in a celebratory way and tell the story about being disabled and proud.”

Besides the minimal representation of disabled characters on screen, Hollywood has had a long-standing history of misrepresenting disability in film. Disabled people have often been depicted as 10 different stereotypes according to Colin Barnes, a disabled Emeritus Professor from the University of Leeds. 

A few of the tropes being, the portrayal of a disabled person as “laughable, an object of curiosity, pitiful, a burden, sinister or even as a super cripple (the presentation of a disabled person as extraordinary in an effort to win over non-disabled people)”. These tropes can be seen in movies like Dumb and Dumber, Forrest Gump, The Orphan and The Theory of Everything which are just a few among many more.

Hollywood has also time and again cast non-disabled actors in roles of disabled characters. See Bryan Cranston playing the role of a quadriplegic man in The Upside despite not being disabled. 

In Me Before You and Million Dollar Baby, the non-disabled actors played roles of paralyzed characters who were portrayed as people who would rather be dead than disabled. This however is not the outlook on life the majority of the disabled community has. 

Hence, the former film was subject to backlash and was denounced by the disabled community through the #LiveBoldly hashtag on social media. This is yet another trope that the film industry has perpetuated where they portray disabled people as their “own worst enemy” according to Colin.

“The disabled community has a phrase, ‘Nothing about us, without us’. That's not to say that non-disabled people should never write disabled characters but rather they're not going to be able to represent disability accurately unless they are disabled or collaborating with people who are disabled,” Ella commented, “My stories come from my heart, from my own lived experience and are more authentic because I am disabled. I think that's the most important thing.”

Ableism on screen, however, isn’t the only place Ella witnessed the ignorance of people around the disabled community. As she attempted to secure funding, a year into filming she was met with the same stereotypical tropes people wanted her to adhere to.

“I faced the most ableism when pitching my 15-minute clip to funders and that was quite difficult. They wanted more of Scott (Ella’s partner at the time) in the film to showcase him as a non-disabled saviour,” says Ella.

Even though she had to film through COVID-19 and forgo interviews in countries with strict lockdown rules, facing ableist funders was her lowest point in the filmmaking journey. She adds that the ableism wasn’t blatant but lurked just under the guise of concern because they were ‘just curious to know what it was like for Scott to live with her’.

Ella went on to add, “This is such a bone of contention within the disabled community. Our partners, carers, and parents are always given a voice and they're always heralded as heroes for putting up with us and we just don't get a voice. So, it was very frustrating to hear that sort of feedback constantly especially when it was the first thing people said.”

Even though she found the ordeal extremely annoying, she stuck to her guns and vehemently rejected the idea.

“It just motivated me even more and fueled my own beliefs,” Ella laughs.

Although she set out on her quest to demonstrate how ableism is pervasively woven throughout society by even interviewing a doctor who conducts operations on children who have a similar condition to her, she never expected to identify her own internalised ableism.

Soon after Ella had secured development funding from the BFI Doc Society to make the film, she found out she was pregnant. She was extremely keen to have a natural birth and was dejected when the doctor informed her that she may have to consider a caesarean birth based on her MRI scans and blood clots.

“I thought I was immune to ableism and didn't think I had any ableist tendencies. But my desire to have a natural birth and a non-disabled experience to prove to myself as a human being and a woman were signs that I did…It was an incredibly freeing realization when I identified those thoughts and decided that it didn’t matter what my body can and can't do and decided to let go,” adds Ella.

Besides it being a pivotal moment in her life, a huge reason she included her giving birth was to destigmatise pregnancy within the disabled community.

According to the National Research Centre for Parents with Disabilities, non-disabled individuals tend to feel like life is harder for children with a disabled parent as they assume the guardian is incapacitated by their disability which is a misconception.

Even though Ella had cameras in her delivery room filming her giving birth at what was a very vulnerable moment for her she says she had to detach herself completely in order to make her point.

“I wanted to show a disabled person having a baby because we don’t see it enough and it happens. Indeed, it results in a lot of judgment because people think that you shouldn't have kids if you're disabled,” says Ella.

The success of Is There Anybody Out There? is evident as Ella has won the BFI and CHANEL Filmmaker Award 2023, been selected as one of BAFTA’s Breakthrough Artists 2023 as well as received BIFA nominations for Best Debut Director for a feature documentary and The Raindance Maverick Award.

Continuing, Ella explains how “winning an award at BIFA would be immensely validating, surreal and I would be very grateful.” Adding that “the film is empowering and the response from the disabled community has also been so amazing.”

In the comments sections of her Facebook and Instagram posts, Ella received tons of love from the disabled community. A Facebook user said, “I wish I had taken you up on the offer to put my daughter in the film. I can’t wait to see it and for her to see it!” Another Twitter user commented, “I have a 13yr old who has the same disability. Only 1 hip is missing, and the other is misshapen…We would love to get to know you. I believe hearing about someone else who is similar would give him some confidence back.”

With almost a hint of determination in her tone, Ella says, she’s going to use the exposure she gets from the BIFA nomination to keep making work that tells the story of the disabled experience.

“The success of the film has given me confidence. It’s really cemented my identity as a filmmaker, and telling my own story feels like I've given birth to myself as a director in a way… Now I'm ready to go and tell other stories that are not all about me,” she says.

She adds that she doesn’t want to be telling stories where disability is overtly the storyline but rather stories where the disability of the characters is incidental to how they would navigate the world.

Ella is currently in the process of writing her first fiction feature for the BFI, called Curiosities of Fools. This historical drama follows the life of a court dwarf in the court of King Charles the Third in the 1600s and his journey to overcoming his own internalized ableism. 

She says disabled people are always going to be the main characters in her work because that's what she knows best, and her calling has always been spotlighting disabled characters to make the film industry more inclusive, even in her early work as a filmmaker.

She says, “After making this film, I'm just so in awe of the disabled community. It's helped me learn that disability isn't really about the body but in a way it's about the soul.

“I have had so much faith in the film. Now it feels like success truly is the best revenge. Everybody who was ableist to me, now watching the film would feel a bit embarrassed.”

IS THERE ANYBODY OUT THERE? is now in UK cinemas and on demand here:

Edited by Emily Duff

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