Staff Writer Nora Deemer reviews Ella Glendining’s documentary “Is There Anybody Out There” (2023) at the Athena Film Festival. Warning: This article discusses themes related to ableism.

Ella Glendining’s 2023 documentary “Is There Anybody Out There” is about disability, ableism, the ethics of medical intervention, finding community, and motherhood, but above all else, to me, it is about fiercely loving yourself despite the world telling you that you shouldn’t.

Ella was born with an extremely rare condition called Proximal Femoral Focal Deficiency (PFFD), which caused her to be born without hip joints and with shortened thigh bones (femurs). 

In an interview with her parents, we find out that Ella was diagnosed on the first prenatal scan. The doctor had never seen anything like it before.

The film cuts between various home videos, showing Ella growing up from infancy to pre-teenhood. It is clear from the videos that she grew up in a loving family, as so many of them feature her giggling with her mother or her father examining and praising her pieces of artwork. Ella voices over the videos, explaining how, before she started going to school, she was “too busy to care” that she was “different.”

Just then, footage of school hallways is rapidly intercut with old footage from circuses, boldly displaying a poster advertising a “freak show.” 

It is clear from those shots how Ella was treated in school.

She didn’t have a community that was just like her to fall back on; She had never seen her condition in anyone else before.

Ella’s face fills the phone camera as she tells the audience that she has just found a Facebook group for people with similar conditions. She desperately wants to find someone with the exact same manifestation of the condition as her (a shortening of both thigh bones), even though it is more common to have just one shortened thigh bone.

She follows the trail of people posting before-and-after images of their femur-lengthening surgeries to Dr. Paley, whom she meets over Zoom.

Looking through her childhood x-rays, the Doctor discusses the surgeries he performs to treat PFFD and ends the call by inviting Ella to email him, implying that she should consider surgical intervention.

After her meeting with Dr. Paley, Ella records herself: “There could be another way for me.”

Considering the option of surgical intervention even more, Ella comes to the realization that “maybe there isn’t anyone like [her]…” because “maybe they’ve all had surgery.”

She goes silent, considering the possibility that she just stumbled upon.

The screen goes black. It lights up again with another video recorded on Ella’s phone. She holds a positive pregnancy test up to the camera.

The documentary begins to veer slightly from the initial goal of finding someone else with the exact same condition as Ella as she begins to experience pregnancy and explore the options that she has for a natural birth, which she feels would be “affirming as a human being.” Plans are made for an MRI to explore how possible a natural birth would be. Another shocking moment occurs when Ella begins to feel sick and ends up being diagnosed with Deep Vein Thrombosis (a blood clot in one of her legs). She is hospitalized, and it is decided that she will give birth via C-section a month before her due date. We are quickly, then, brought to the delivery room where Ella’s son, River, is born.

Ella returns to the camera a few months later, reporting that her journey of finding someone just like her “does not end with [the birth of] River.”

She meets with the parent of a child about to undergo multiple surgical procedures to treat PFFD. The parent’s justification for the surgery is that not undergoing it would be “holding her back” and that she needs the surgeries so that she is not “completely and totally in a wheelchair.”

The scene cuts to Ella in her wheelchair picking flowers with River.

“I love and respect my body,” Ella says. “Being this way is not the problem.” She recounts the stares and rude comments she experiences daily.

Old footage of a disabled child in a wheelchair is played. He is introduced as Kevin. His mother is interviewed and asked about Kevin’s future. She explains that his life will always be different and that he will never marry, have children, or have a job. 

Ella decides to meet up with three other people with PFFD: Priscilla, a makeup artist on YouTube; Ricardo, an influencer on Instagram under the handle @nofemurkid; and a young boy whose mother is struggling with decisions around medical intervention. 

They discuss a range of topics, including ‘disabled’ as a label, fetishization, internalized ableism, and self-love.

The child’s mother expresses how much she is debating over medical intervention as it feels like everyone is encouraging a different procedure, but she just doesn’t want to take his childhood away. 

Ella tears up as she explains how even all of them are different, as they have different permeations of the condition, use different mobility aids, and have such wildly different backgrounds.

Ella ends up going to Florida to meet Dr. Paley in person. He explains that the type of surgery that would be an option for her is only performed on children around the age of three, and so, as Ella expresses it, she is “sort of a lost cause.”

When told about the conflicted mother, Dr. Paley counters by saying that it “sounds like no one has educated her” and that “people should not be conflicted.”

Ella sits on a curb outside Dr. Paley’s clinic, smoking a cigarette. “Society tells us that disability is a fate worse than death,” she explains. She realizes how grateful she is for her parent’s decision not to put her through any surgical procedures as a child.

Ella’s face appears in a Zoom window on a call with Kevin, the child from the old documentary footage previously shown. He recounts his disability activism of painting the street outside the British Prime Minister’s house with red paint and chaining himself to buses. 

Ella asks if he feels that he has proved his mother wrong. He then calls off camera, and his wife and two children walk into the room, proudly answering Ella’s question.

Ella leaves the audience with one last piece of advice for people who feel alone in their disabilities: “Disabled kinship is the key to disabled joy… The world would be worse off without disabled people.”

Is There Anybody Out There promotional still via Athena Film Festival