Review: ‘Unrest’

Jennifer Brea’s doc is both a vehicle for inquiry and a tool for education

7 mins read

(USA/UK, 98 min.)
Dir. Jennifer Brea


While iPhones can be a grievance in movie theatres, one can’t deny that they’re friends to documentary filmmakers. Just look at Jennifer Brea’s deeply personal and sensitive film Unrest, a film that simply could not have been made a decade ago but is now touching audiences and a dark horse on the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature. Brea chronicles her experience with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), more commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome, and she begins her journey with the documentary by picking up her iPhone in her bed to record the debilitating pain of her condition that her doctors can’t grasp. The result is an empowering and inspiring journey of hope, strength, and resilience.

Brea incorporates some footage of her life before being afflicted with ME at the age of 28. The contrast speaks to the devastating effects of the disease. When Unrest cuts between the images of the bedridden filmmaker and shots of Brea conquering the world in sneakers and a backpack, one sees a youthful lust for life cruelly struck down. Her sudden and mysterious illness leaves her sleepy and weak. Maybe it’s stress or depression, the doctors say, but soon she can’t even sit upright in a wheelchair.

Unrest explains this obscure and complicated disease remarkably well simply by inviting the audience to witness Brea’s daily negotiation of ME. She might be walking around and smiling in the sunshine one minute and then lying in the grass, wiped out and drained of energy, the next. Some intense scenes with Brea’s dedicated husband, Omar, show her trying experimental and holistic cures that yield modest results, but they also invite insanity through the minutiae of the disease that can trigger pain without notice.

Unrest documents the challenges of understanding a disease that doctors struggle to diagnose. Brea’s early iPhone footage helps convince her doctor that her pain isn’t all in her head. An early opinion puts latent trauma as the culprit, offering convenient shifting of the blame from the body to the brain.

Brea resorts to the same authority to which many people turn while seeking answers: Google. Through the Internet, Brea learns the tenuous history that ME has with physicians. People don’t understand it and too few doctors have tried to. What surprises her more is the fact that ME isn’t as rare as she thinks it is: millions of people have it, yet support for research is disproportionately poor compared to funds allotted to diseases with fewer cases. More research outlines an illness with a history of misogyny, since about 80% of cases impact women, with overwhelmingly male doctors initially dismissing chronic fatigue syndrome as the product of hysteria. Some still do.

It all starts with visibility. Brea observes that part of the reason that ME receives little attention is because those afflicted by it are largely confined to their homes and out of the public eye. The invisibility of the disease enables misperceptions and encourages stigma.One shocking story in Denmark tells of a teenager named Karina who was ripped from her home by police and forcibly institutionalized when medical professionals assumed Karina’s illness, which they diagnosed as psychosomatic, to be a consequence of neglect. That case is one of all too many that have occurred to victims of ME. Brea bravely uses her journey as the case study to help put the disease under the public microscope.

The web yields the medicine that Brea desperately needs. She discovers a community of people like her who live with ME. YouTubers, bloggers, activists, parents, children, and others share stories of being confined to their beds by a disease that strikes them down. A support network develops as Brea takes her film a step further and interviews people around the world with ME to ask the questions that too few in the medical community tackle.

The interviews remarkably let Brea travel the world again as she grows her team with cinematographers and production assistants who devise make-shift Interrotrons with iPads, devices, and professional-grade cameras that allow Brea to conduct conversations remotely while her assistants film on location. These interviews add to Brea’s personal iPhone recordings with their stories of life with the disease. Unrest offers images of a young man named Whitney fed intravenously while his parents worry that suicide, a leading cause of death among patients with ME, will come sooner than a cure. Leeray, a mother with ME, watches from her bed as her children grow up and, tragically, her daughter Casie contracts the disease. A young woman named Jessica invites Brea to join her remotely for a bittersweet birthday toast to mark another year gone by. While Brea captures evidence of the consequences of ME, more often than not, her footage emphasizes the sparks of life that defy the physical afflictions of the disease.

Like Brea, these people want their lives back. They want to understand their disease so they can treat it. They want doctors to want the same thing.

Unrest serves as both a vehicle for inquiry and a tool for education. Brea, a PhD student when she contracted ME, dives into the questions and research to understand her disease. The film offers a compassionate guide for empathy as Brea remains sensitive to the needs and conditions of her fellow subjects, but also probes the emotional difficulty of living with the disease day by day.

Unrest is now available on home video




Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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