Jennifer Brea’s Unrest is an painfully personal journey into her life with ME (also known as Chronic Fatigue syndrome). The film follows Brea as she turns the camera on herself in an attempt to document this widely misunderstood and highly stigmatised disease. In doing so, she opens up her world and invites the audience to truly experience the horrors of the debilitating illness.
Before being struck down with ME, Brea was at Harvard, studying for her PHD. She was on the verge of marrying Oscar Wasow, her long term partner, when she was struck with a high fever lasting days. After recovering from this, she found herself suffering with symptoms of chronic fatigue. She became unable to leave her bed, lift her arms, walk and at times, she was even unable to speak. Brea and Wasow began to seek help for her condition, which was loosely diagnosed as ME, but on the way they discovered a much more widespread issue – the complete lack of support, diagnosis and funding for those suffering with symptoms of ME. What began as Brea documenting her own illness, became a rallying cry heard around the world.
An Invisible Disease
Much of Brea’s journey in Unrest is a virtual one. Initially, Brea is confined to her bed and she reaches out to other ME sufferers online via Skype, Facebook and other forms of social media. Brea’s own personal suffering quickly becomes a small piece in a huge jigsaw which shines a light on a far larger issue than is widely known. Brea uses the first of the film as a personal introduction to the illness, and the second half as a discussion of the history, stigma and the push for awareness. Brea’s constant voice over throughout sews these two very different halves together and is a great addition to what we see on screen.
The focus on a global struggle rather than one singular narrative works well with Brea’s interviews with other sufferers over skype. Of course, this is mostly logistical – but never seeing Brea physically with the other contributors helps to drive home the feelings of isolation and imprisonment that they all feel. The camera is close on all of Brea’s interviewees, reiterating this.
Brea also refuses to cut away from sequences when it may be comfortable to do so. In a few scenes, the camera is left rolling whilst she falls down in pain, is crying or is in a state of utter distress. It makes for wholly uncomfortable viewing, subjecting the audience to the pain that Brea is in. It’s through allowing the audience to see the devastating physical effects of ME, not just Brea talking about it, that non ME sufferers can begin to have an understanding of it. It’s a brave decision to continue to film these incidents, and it is a decision that is rewarded by an visually and emotionally engaging film from beginning to end.
All in Your Head
As Brea documents with her own doctor, many medical professionals are reluctant to diagnose ME, often describing it as a mental illness rather than a physical one. This stigma, which is shown to be a common misconception throughout the world, is one which Unrest attempts to breakdown. In the second part of the film, Brea interviews a family in Denmark who have a particularly harrowing story about the treatment of their daughter, Karina. In Denmark, ME is categorised as a psychological illness, and thus patients can be forcibly detained in facilities if doctors decide it is necessary for their ‘recovery’. Utterly shocking, it’s hard to believe that this sort of thing is happening in 2017.
Karina’s story is reminiscent of 18th century treatments for hysteria and hypochondria – particularly in women. Brea makes a point to compare the treatment of women by the medical profession throughout history – it’s no coincidence that ME is largely ignored and that roughly 80% of its sufferers are women. Similarly with dismissing women as hysterical, or considering them to be hypochondriacs if they complained of illness – ME sufferers are frequently told that it is simply psychosomatic. There are no physical symptoms. As Brea investigates further, many practitioners believe that ME is a sign of childhood trauma and that the body shutting down is a response to suppressed memories of that trauma.
The worst thing? This still happens today all the time – any google search of endometriosis will tell you that women’s pain and suffering has long been dismissed as ‘all in your head’. Those struggling with ME are subject to exactly the same rhetoric.
Brea went on to found the #MEAction group, which started the #millionsmissing campaign to raise awareness of the high numbers (25%) of ME sufferers who are unable to leave their beds. Unrest culminates in the worldwide protest for #millionsmissing, an installation of empty shoes to represent those that cannot be there. The protest is an idea introduced quite late in the film, and it does feel a little rushes (there’s very little build up to it) but it succeeds in giving Unrest the hopeful message it so badly needs.
Unrest: A Better Future?
Supporting personal stories from her contributors with historical evidence, numerical statistics and information from specialists – Brea’s Unrest is the definitive film about ME. Absorbing, sensitive and devastating, it’s a film which can be understood by those who know nothing about the condition and can still serve up a meaningful discussion for those who have more experience with it. It’s a tricky balance, but Brea absolutely nails it. Of course the title, Unrest, not only refers to the physical discomfort and pain within the body, but the civil unrest – a movement born out of suffering which is starting to demand justice. Unrest is, ultimately, about hope.
Brea has since stated that making Unrest saved her life. It’s a brave, moving portrait of suffering – I would not be surprised if this film saves more lives than just Brea’s.
What did you think of Unrest? Are there other films that also discuss the stigma of ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome?
Unrest is out in select cinemas at the moment – check here for updates
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