The Sundance award-winning documentary Unrest tells the story of Jennifer Brea, and others like her, who are stricken with what is commonly referred to as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, or ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy). People suffer from ME to varying degrees. Some don’t know they have it. Some get better with time. Some, as we see during the course of the film, are bedridden for years, their lives effectively stolen by an illness that is not fully understood, nor taken seriously by many medical professionals.
This is apparently what caused Brea to begin documenting what it’s like to live with this condition. She initially began filming to demonstrate the seriousness of her symptoms to her doctors, but the end result of her video diary is an incredibly emotive and powerful work that is simultaneously tender and merciless.
Unrest is, like most of the best documentaries, clever, fascinating, heartwrenching, and very frustrating. Viewers are presented with the hard, scientific facts, which prove that ME is a physical illness and not, as many doctors still believe, a purely psychological disorder. And yet, as we learn later, research into the condition is still woefully underfunded. There are parts of the world in which ME sufferers are institutionalised against their will and kept from their familes, apparently in an attempt to cure them of their psychological affliction. The idea that this attitude stems in part from the fact that most ME sufferers are women is unfortunately all too believable.
The emotional and physical effects of the syndrome shown here are by no means easy viewing. Camera shots are lengthy and often painful to watch, as the audience sees Brea crawling along the floor and up the stairs, telling her husband that it’s OK, and to keep filming. The editing well deserves the Sundance Special Jury Prize that it earned. Shots of Jennifer’s life before she fell ill are used to great effect, and the use of Skype and iPad teleprompters for conducting interviews ends up blending seamlessly with the in-person interviews. But, in the end, it’s the relationship between Jennifer and her husband, Omar, that gives this film so much emotional power. This portrait of a couple coping through extreme adversity, warts and all, will chew you up and spit you back out again.
Unrest is released nationwide on 20th October 2017.
Watch the trailer for Unrest here: