Is There Anybody Out There? opens with a video of Ella Glendining in her bedroom. She sets up her phone camera and starts to dance to ‘Frank Sinatra’ by CAKE, letting her whole body drop and move with abandon to the music. It is a mesmerising opener that announces the astonishing intimacy of Glendining’s filmmaking and the personal nature of her reflections.
There is a childish glee in such a moment, privately allowing oneself to move and dance in the way we learn to restrain in the adult world. Glendining takes us back to her own childhood, through footage shot by her father at Christmas. We see her in a patch of bluebells, describing her home in Elsing, Norfolk, as “magical”, too preoccupied with writing stories to notice that her body was different to other people’s.
This is the central tenet of Glendining’s film – that prejudice and insecurity around our bodies, disabled or otherwise, largely comes through the perception of others, a point she illustrates with clips from Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks. The clips underscore her message, but it’s a shame that she does not mention the film’s reclamation in later years as an important milestone in disability representation on screen, with its rallying cry of “One of us!” creating a sense of community.
Glendining makes excellent use of archival footage, always moving from her personal reflections to broader arguments about disability. The historical interviews contain the usual shocks of hearing parents dismiss hopes for work and family in the futures of their own children, and one particularly striking interview with a disabled charity worker who is asked if she is glad that she was allowed to survive. Glendining uses this moment to show that while others see a wheelchair as a form of imprisonment, for those who use them it is their freedom.
By talking to surgeons and parents whose children have similar conditions to hers, Glendining questions the need to find a ‘cure’. In a series of conversations with her autistic friend Naomi, she asks her if she would accept a brain chip that would ‘fix’ autism. To them the suggestion of a ‘solution’ (with that word’s obvious associations) is deeply upsetting, for it would erase a vital part of what makes them who they are. There’s an endearing messiness to the film, admitting that we will often say and do things that do not quite sit right, but that is how we come to change our biases for the better. We can all learn something from Glendining’s refreshing honesty.
► Is There Anybody Out There? is in UK cinemas now and is available to stream on Curzon Home.
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