‘Unrest’ Director Jennifer Brea Reveals How Making a Documentary About Her Illness Helped Treat It

When Jennifer Brea began documenting the symptoms of her mysterious illness on her phone, it wasn’t because she set out to make a film. It was because the documentarian, who wound up including the footage in “Unrest,” about her own struggle and the international community struggling with M.E. (a.k.a. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), wanted a way to capture her experiences.

The Harvard PhD student normally would have written about her experience, but the disease zapped all the energy from her body.

“My whole life I had been a writer, so normally I would have picked up a pen and started journaling. I’ve kept journals my whole life, but I reached a point where I was so limited in terms of my cognitive exertion that if I would write a sentence or two of an email I would pass out for the next four hours,” she explained in a Q&A following a showing of her film at the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series. “And so for me, the recording on my iPhone was really just a substitute, it was a space to put that grief and fear and anger in this moment in my life when I had no idea what was happening to me, and needed an outlet.”

But in fact, the moments she captured on her phone helped alert her doctors to the seriousness of her symptoms. Once they saw how difficult her daily life had become, they reacted with shock and horror.

“It occurred to me that I spent 18 months just talking and no one had been able to understand what I was trying to say, and in a few seconds of showing it just sort of transformed the conversation, and so that gave me the insight that maybe this story had to be told visually.” Making the film took years of effort on Brea’s part, and she recalls one moment in particular that stuck with her and encapsulated her experience on the project. She was Skyping with her crew in Denmark, and the sun began to set while they were filming.

“The emotion of that moment is that I hadn’t been outside my own home in four months, and I’d forgotten that I hadn’t actually seen the sun in that long and I’d forgotten what it was like to watch the sun set. It was in gorgeous color on my screen and me watching this forest in a country I’d never been before,” she said.

“It was surreal because it was in some ways better than life, but at the same time I couldn’t even go into my backyard. That contrast between how big my life was and how small it was at the same time, and how amazing and awesome it was to be on that journey, and how desperate I was to get out of the bedroom, it was unfolding in that moment.”

Watch clips from the Q&A below:

The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.