Filmmaker Profile: Ella Glendining

Local writer/director Ella Glendining speaks to Deborah Espect about her exciting projects, and championing ableism in her work. 

Ella Glendining is a Writer/Director dedicated to telling authentic disabled stories. Her first feature film, Is There Anybody Out There? will be premiering at Sundance Film Festival 2023 as part of the World Cinema Documentary competition. Ella has written/directed short films with backing from Film4, the BFI, Arts Council England, Screen South, and the National Paralympic Heritage Trust. Ella was named one of Screen International’s Stars of Tomorrow 2020. She is currently writing a feature fiction film called Curiosities of Fools for the BFI.

Let’s start with a HUGE congratulation on your Sundance selection! 
Thank you so much. I can still barely believe it. And it is proof that dreams can come true, as it was always me and my producer Janine Marmot’s dream for this film to get into Sundance. Some of my favourite films had their premiere at Sundance, and it’s where so many great filmmakers got their big break. The exposure from the festival is going to elevate my film to a whole new level, and I am so thrilled, because I want it to reach as many people as possible. I really believe in the message of this film and am so excited to share it with the world.

Is There Anybody Out There? is a very personal film. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Is There Anybody Out There? is about my search for other people with the same rare disability as me, never having seen another person with a body like mine before. It is about existing in an extremely unusual looking body, and what it takes to love yourself fiercely despite the pervasiveness of ableism.

What do you hope people will take away from it? 
I hope this film will help change the mainstream perception of disability significantly. I think it’s a really powerful and unique documentary in that it is the voice of the disabled and proud. People think of disability as a fate worse than death, but I love and accept myself; always have, always will. This documentary is me and other amazing disabled people shouting our self-love from the rooftops: nothing about us without us.

What challenges did you face, making this documentary?
People wanted me to interview my then partner, Scott, about his experience of being with a disabled person. The story was never about Scott. There was never a non-disabled hero. Myself and the other disabled contributors are the heroes in this story. So I made a point of not including him much in the film, but I definitely faced some pushback from some people the film team went to for advice / potential funding etc. Ableism is so insidious and there is so much unconscious bias. I am really passionate about challenging that. There were other challenges too, like getting used to seeing myself objectively / letting go of insecurity in that regard, but the main thing I struggled with was the fear of upsetting people, as the film is controversial at times, and deals with such difficult topics. I hope I told the story in a nuanced and non-judgemental way.

What is your experience of the film industry so far, when it comes to accessibility and diversity, both in front of and behind the camera?
My experience as a disabled person in the industry has been a mixed bag. As a director it has been fab, but in the beginning when I was doing work placements and stuff, I experienced awful ableism, both in terms of extreme physical inaccessibility and outdated and offensive attitudes. I am extremely ambitious and driven because of ableism, which is one of the main reasons I see my disability as a gift. It has helped me understand and harness my talent so that I can fight for what I believe in.

You’re originally from Norwich. What made you decide to move to Brighton?
I decided to move to Brighton in my mid-twenties because I knew if I didn’t move then, I never would! I had lived in Norfolk all my life and had always loved Brighton for its vibrant queer scene, but also loved that it was calmer than London. So I decided to give it a go, as I like change. Me and my ex-girlfriend moved here together to start our queer life, and almost immediately ended up getting Tinder boyfriends! Hilarious.

Brighton is a regarded as a safe space for our LGBTQIA+ community. We’re pretty much in a bubble, here! But can the same be said for people with disabilities?
Actually, I will say that I have met a lot of fabulous disabled people here in Brighton, but most of them are also queer. Ultimately though, of course Brighton is not a utopia for disabled people, particularly in terms of access. That said, attitudes as a general rule may be more progressive and welcoming to people who deviate from the norm, so ultimately I would say Brighton is not a bad place to live as a disabled person.

We were so pleased to screen your drama Octopus as part of FilmPride at Brighton & Hove Pride in August. It starred Annabelle Davis, who recently appeared in the Willow series! It was – and this is incredibly sad to say – very refreshing to see a three-dimensional character whose story didn’t just centre around her disability. 
I am so chuffed for Annabelle Davis, and she was so great to work with. I look forward to watching her in Willow. I’m glad you found her portrayal refreshing in that sense. Ableism is usually the biggest theme in my work, but on the surface, Octopus isn’t about ableism at all. Main character Mini’s experience of being an outsider is deeply imbedded in her character however, and ultimately this is a film about love between outsiders.

You’ve recently shot a short film for Channel 4. What can we look forward to?
Yes, my first comedy! It is called Pyramid of Disunion and I also star in it, and co-directed it with Jessi Gutch. I hope it’ll make people laugh mainly. It’s about a young disabled woman who joins an eco-community to get over an ex, but ends up bumping into an old flame… It is another film that couldn’t exist without disability, though equally disability isn’t the main focus of the story.

What’s next for you?
I am about to start writing the screenplay for a historical drama feature for the BFI called Curiosities of Fools, a project produced by Janine Marmot, who produced Is There Anybody Out There? I am beyond excited to make this film! It is about the life of a court dwarf in the court of King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria, and is about his journey of self-acceptance as he slowly becomes embroiled with the Queen’s court fools, whom at the start of the film he sees himself as far superior to. This film feels like something I was born to make.

If you could make any film, without any of the usual obstacles indie filmmakers face, what would it be?
Curiosities of Fools! But I have faith we will do it.

Is there an existing film that you’d be interested in making a remake or reboot of?
Something like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? But without the cripping up.

Who are your favourite filmmakers and what are your favourite films?
Cliché but Jane Campion is probably my favourite. I love that her work is about outsiders. I love An Angel At My Table and Top of the Lake, and The Power of the Dog absolutely blew my mind when it came out. The power of the underdog. It really spoke to me.

What advice would you give to disabled aspiring filmmakers who don’t necessarily have the knowledge, resources or contacts to help them make a film?
I would advocate for studying as I know I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have if I didn’t study Film and Moving Image Production at Norwich University of the Arts. It was a very practical course, and I made really useful connections there / because of going there. I didn’t go to film school afterwards or anything though, just did that BA. It is so much about networking, making connections and finding other enthusiastic aspiring filmmakers to collaborate with too though. Finding online or local groups can be good, and also applying to short filmmaking schemes with story ideas like Channel Four’s Random Acts for example can be a really good leg-up. My first film after leaving uni was a Random Acts film, and was a great experience. It was there I met Lisa-Marie Russo, who was Executive Producing, and has been the most amazing mentor ever since (and an Executive Producer on Is There Anybody Out There?)

We’ll catch up with Ella again after her Sundance premiere, so watch this space! In the meantime, you can follow her on Instagram at @ella_bee_g

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