Disabled writer and director Ella Glendining has just been named as a BAFTA Breakthrough 2023 following the release of her documentary, Is There Anybody Out There?. Here, Norfolk-born Ella explains how growing up in a small village shaped her
Growing up in the Norfolk village of Elsing shaped Ella Glendining ‘in a beautiful way’. The writer and director, who was born with a rare disability, is dedicated to telling authentic, disabled stories and has just been selected for a BAFTA Breakthrough 2023, for her documentary ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’. Ella recalls: ‘I was basically in the middle of the woods, in our little cottage, just growing up and playing imaginary games in the woods with my neighbour.
‘That’s kind of my prevailing childhood memory and I think that really kind of fostered my creativity as well. Being out in nature all the time, being isolated and just having a lot of time in my head, I think, definitely shaped me.’
Ella works in both documentary and fiction and has written and directed short films (including Octopus, which was shot in Sheringham), with backing from Film4, the BFI Doc Society Fund awarding National Lottery funding, Arts Council England, Screen South, and the National Paralympic Heritage Trust.
Is There Anybody Out There? follows the filmmaker’s global search for someone with the same rare disability and body that looks like hers and explores what it takes to love yourself fiercely as a disabled person in an ableist world.
Just days ahead of the film’s release last month, Ella was awarded the prestigious British Film Institute and Chanel Filmmaker Award. The winners of the 2023 Awards were selected by this year’s jury, which included Academy Award Winner Tilda Swinton. Ella says: ‘She’s really one of my absolute all-time idols. I really kind of gushed and fangirled in a way that I don’t normally do but she was so lovely, and it was an amazing honour and amazing confidence boost to win that award.’
And, most recently, Ella was selected for the BAFTA Breakthrough, which showcases and supports the next generation of creatives in film, games and television in the UK, the US and India. She says: ‘It feels like a big deal just to be recognised as having had a breakthrough year in the industry and to be championed. I very much appreciate the exposure it’s going to give me.’
‘One thing I’m really excited about is there’s a mentorship element so I’m in the process at the moment of listing dream mentors: industry directors, producers, people I think I can learn a lot from. I give that to BAFTA and then BAFTA approaches the people I’ve chosen to see if they’re up for mentoring me, so that’s incredibly exciting – to learn from people that I admire but to also foster potential relationships and creative collaborations.’
It’s been quite a month or so for Ella, and she admits: ‘I’m feeling very overwhelmed but in a good way – my documentary is being received so well.’
‘I am quite good at pushing myself, so I’ve been touring with the film a tour of the UK and Ireland for the last few weeks and that’s been really intense, but I think I do well when I’m full of adrenaline.’
However, Ella missed her son, River, and adds: ‘It feels completely time to just commit to being back home for a bit – working still, but mainly focussing on my son and grounding myself as it’s been a lot. It’s all about being a mum now.’
She speaks of the ‘juggle’: ‘I have this exciting career but also have a child which was never necessarily on my plan. I was very focused on my career and then got accidentally pregnant. I compromise a lot. I love to do everything, but I can’t. I know that River is obviously more important than my career, but both are very important and I’m a single mum as well.’
Ella, who lives in Brighton, adds: ‘I have a lot of support from my parents – they are amazing. My mum still lives in Norfolk, but she visits loads and is really close to River – and my dad is just down the road.’ She says of Norfolk: ‘I do I still visit when I can and I’m coming back for New Year.’
Ella is currently developing a historical drama feature for the BFI with disabled characters at its core, produced by Janine Marmot. ‘My big exciting new project is my first fiction feature film,’ says Ella. ‘It’s called Curiosities of Fools and it’s about the life of a court dwarf during the court of King Charles I. It’s about his journey of overcoming his own internalised ableism and finding community within the court fools of the palace. So, there are lots of similar themes to my documentary but it’s a very different setting and story and I’m really excited about it. I’m writing that at the moment and also directing it. I won’t be in it (well, maybe I will but who knows?).’
What is her ultimate dream as a director? ‘The amazing thing is I’m sort of doing it! When I say it out loud it’s amazing. I am working on my dream project and it’s going to happen – I believe that. I just want to keep making films that shine a light on ableism, but also tell amazing stories with central disabled characters. I want to do that for the rest of my career and life.’ Plus, Ella adds: ‘I want to win many awards!’
Featured image of Ella Glendining, standing – Copyright: David Myers