Review: Is There Anybody Out There? ★★★★★
BFI & CHANEL Filmmaker Award winner Ella Glendining delivers an essential, honest and eye-opening account of disability in an ableist world, in the BIFA nominated documentary film Is There Anybody Out There?
First, a note on positionality: this reviewer is a non-disabled person, reviewing a film by and about disabled people and issues faced by disabled people. I acknowledge this and the perspective from which I approach this film as a viewer.
It’s become something of a To Do List cliche to say so, but Is There Anybody Out There? feels depressingly essential viewing. Essential in the sense that stories of disability, told by disabled filmmakers, lend much-needed voice and visibility to an under-represented demographic. Depressing because that lack of representation, not just in film (fiction or documentary) but across the arts and media, still exists and still merits column inches now in 2023.
Ella Glendining has crafted a beautiful, heartbreakingly honest insight into her own search for someone with the same rare disability and body that looks like hers, exploring – through a combination of video-diaries, interviews and filmed meet-ups – what it takes to love yourself as a disabled person in an ableist world.
Ella’s is a film which began its journey before Covid, and before a significant life event, and which organically adapts to developments both global and personal. Given this reviewer’s positionality, any assessment of whether Glendening’s personal story accurately represents the challenges faced by disabled people would be more or less invalid. What is certain, however, is that in Is There Anybody Out There? one finds a powerful human story of self-discovery, alongside a strong critique of ableist attitudes towards disability.
There is an intimacy engendered by the use of grainy home video footage from Ella’s childhood, as well as the self-shot pieces to camera. Elsewhere, AnneMarie Lean-Vercoe’s cinematography brings us up into the heart of Ella’s interviews with her parents, meetings with other disabled people, and the tense face-to-face with US-based orthopedic surgeon Dror Paley.
That latter encounter – Paley specialises in major ‘correctional’ surgery, mainly on young children, his view being that any parent of a disabled child who is ‘educated’ about such procedures would choose to go ahead with the surgery – is perhaps the inevitable dramatic climax to the documentary narrative, but there are many other quieter moments which have more emotional resonance.
Is There Anybody Out There? feels, to this reviewer, to be an inspirational and educational triumph. It is a film that anyone and everyone should see – there is, almost certainly, something to learn for anyone arriving at this film, from whatever background. Glendining has said that she wants the film “to reach as wide an audience as possible, […] to humanise disabled people.” She hopes that “its non-disabled audience will question the way they think about and interact with disabled people, and for them to be less ableist as a result.” In that regard we must all surely hope that this film is sen as widely as possible – change is needed!
Is There Anybody Out There? is out now in selected cinemas – check here for details – and is also available to Watch at Home.
I am Joint Editor at To Do List. I like: nice pubs, film marathons, not doing real marathons, bad comedy, plays/musicals with shorter second halves, and the Oxford comma.