Is There Anybody Out There? wowed audiences at Sundance back in January and did the same at EIFF. Ella Glendinning‘s sweet, funny, and ultimately triumphant documentary follows the filmmaker through her quest to find somebody with the same disability that she does. Ella was born without hip joints and with short thigh bones, a condition so rare it barely has a name. We see her journey from an adorable, curious, and cheeky toddler in family video footage, to three years in her late 20s as she embarks on her search to find someone, anyone, just like her.

Like a lot of great documentaries, Is There Anybody Out There becomes a completely different journey to the one the filmmaker intended. Ella, clearly playing with the subconscious, ableist assumptions of the viewer, springs a surprise by introducing the audience to her handsome boyfriend and an unexpected pregnancy. This revelation changes the feel of the documentary exponentially. You can visibly see Ella’s combative edges, chiselled by experience, soften as she plans for the future. Then along comes Covid and she has to continue her search during the upheaval of lockdown, and the arrival of her gorgeous baby son.

Is There Anybody Out There? poses many interesting questions without insisting on having all the answers. How do we define a fulfilling, valuable, life? How do parents make the tough choices for a disabled child who can’t consent to the treatment offered? Can a disabled person make allowances for their disability without sacrificing any of themselves, or without confirming to ableist societal structures? What is amazing about Glendinning’s documentary is how it allows these issues to percolate and for any potential conclusions to shift and reshape throughout. For instance, early in her pregnancy Ella is insistent on a natural birth despite her condition. Later she considers this to be internalised ableism on her part, and she’s baffled she even cared how the baby was born as long as he was healthy and happy.

Her entire journey is handled so deftly, with endless humour and empathy. Even a paediatrician who specialises in treating children with Ella’s condition, and who speaks ominously of ‘educating parents’ to approve the treatment, isn’t vilified; Glendinning preferring to disagree with him on camera after their meeting. In fact, Is There Anybody Out There? becomes a joyful and moving experience that documents a beautiful, personal quest towards self-acceptance, but also seeks to reframe how we look at disability in an accessible and non-judgemental way. Utterly compelling.

Screened as part of Edinburgh Film Festival 2023