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‘Unrest’ Review: A Personal Look at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, With Powerful Results — Sundance 2017

Jennifer Brea's documentary about her struggles with the disease is an emotional window into its impact on her marriage, but it also looks beyond her own story.

unrest

“Unrest”

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome — otherwise known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis — receives little exposure in the media and often goes misdiagnosed, even as it afflicts tens of thousands of people worldwide. Jennifer Brea’s stirring documentary “Unrest” goes a long way toward explaining the nature of the disease and the devastating impact it can have on family life, deriving much of its power from her own encounter with it.

Brea’s diaristic approach combines a snapshot of her own struggles as she grows increasingly weak and wheelchair-bound while leaning on her husband for support. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this approach, which has the rough, collage-like structure of a first feature. But “Unrest” works particularly well once Brea looks beyond the limitations of her own bedridden experiences to document other cases worldwide, providing a stirring collage of stories to illustrate the destructive impact of the disease and why it remains widely neglected by the medical community.

Brea was a Harvard PhD student about to get married when she was struck with insurmountable bouts of fatigue. With intimate, handheld footage, she captures situations in which she can barely crawl across the floor, and sometimes loses the ability to express a cogent thought, so exhausted that she’s essentially paralyzed. Her husband, noted internet analyst and Princeton professor Omar Wasow, sticks by her side but seems baffled by the lack of treatment for her situation. It’s only once Brea turns to social media, finding likeminded people from around the world facing similar situations, that she’s able to put her situation in a broader context. From there, she dispatches cameras across the U.S., U.K., and Denmark, facilitating interviews from her bed to gain a more complex understanding of the disease.

It’s there that she finds tragic anecdotes of isolated figures, from a young woman who hasn’t been able to touch the floor in years to an older one whose husband left her after she passed the ailment to a daughter. With time, Brea reaches out to a handful of doctors able to discuss the sources of the disease, and uncovers the extent to which it has been widely misunderstood. In many countries, the medical community has deemed ME a psychological ailment that has led to victims being taken away from their relatives under the belief that they share the delusion of a physical problem that isn’t there. But Brea’s research finds so many connections to the symptoms shared by others that she leaves no doubt about its precise effects, for which only a committed medical approach can attempt to find a cure.

The bigger picture allows her to circle back to the more intimate portrait of her married life with renewed value. Capturing warm moments and pithy arguments alike, she offers a fascinating window into the toll of the disease on her everyday routine. Images of her splayed out in bed, facing buckets full of pills, speak volumes about the extent to which she has become buried in possible cures and little energy to try them out. By sharing her stories with others, she taps into the frustrations of living with the disease over the course of several years, a plight that has led others to suicide.  “You don’t realize when you’re in a bubble how much time goes by,” says one victim.

“Unrest” doesn’t build toward any great epiphany or offer a singular way forward for people like Brea, though it finds some modicum of hope in its portrait of the 2016 Millions Missing protest, which pushed for greater recognition and support for ME patients worldwide. However, the movie delivers a striking degree of emotional authenticity with its home footage, allowing it to become more about its central couple’s resilience than the hardships that tests their bond. By capturing the ongoing romance in her life, “Unrest” manages to end on a triumphant note — even as it acknowledges that, for Brea and others like her, the battle continues with no end in sight.

Grade: B+

“Unrest” premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival in U.S. Competition. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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Comments

Jim LeBrecht

I wanted to correct some inaccuracies in your review. Jen didn’t become wheelchair-bound, she became bedridden. And the woman’s husband didn’t leave his marriage after his daughter came down with ME. He left before that happened because he thought that his wife’s symptoms weren’t real. He thought that she’d get better not having him as a crutch. It was when his daughter came down with ME that he realized that his wife wasn’t faking. I’d complete the story here, but I don’t want to spoil the story for people that haven’t seen the film, yet.

Unrest is an unforgettable film and excellent doc filmmaking. Oh, one other thing, there are about 1,000,000 people with ME/CFS in the US. Millions more worldwide. Our government spends more money on male pattern baldness research than on this disease.

Full disclosure: I was the sound mixer on Unrest. Of all of the docs I’ve mixed over the last 20 years, Unrest stands out as one of best films I’ve ever worked on.

    samuel

    Jessica L E Taylor who features in this documentary has now wrote her own book all about her childhood and growing up battling m.e please help support this important campaign  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/darkglassesbook/a-girl-behind-dark-glasses?ref=81meui

Jan Wade

If Doctors Naviaux and Davis are featured, discussing the newly discovered chemical signature, then any discussion as to whether or not this disease is “real” or not is moot. This new scientific discovery in the field of metabolomics objectively dismisses that argument, and clearly lays out how the seven systems in the human body are dysfunctional and there’s nothing the patient – or medicine – can do about it at this current time.

Also, I hope the film touches on the fact that Ampligen, the only medication that may truly have a positive affect on this disease, is all tangled up in politics, without any regard for the patient community.

I can’t wait to see it.

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