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