Film Review by Louise Sargent
Back in November 2017, my brother Stuart and I went to our local screening of Unrest, an award-winning documentary film about Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. Jennifer Brea is about to marry the love of her life when she’s struck down by a fever that leaves her bedridden. When doctors tell her “it’s all in her head”, she turns her camera on herself and her community as she looks for answers and fights for a cure. Although it was emotionally challenging to watch, we were pleased to share our views on this groundbreaking film with you. Jennifer has had a tumultuous journey but she recently announced that her M.E. is in Remission. I am republishing our review to highlight the complexities surrounding this extensive and debilitating neurological disease.
“I’m hoping that this film can end the stigma, and also massively grow the scientific field. It’s really through science that we’re going to be able to find out what causes this, and ultimately how to cure this.”
Jennifer Brea is an active Harvard PhD student about to marry the love of her life when suddenly her body starts failing her. Hoping to shed light on her strange symptoms, Jennifer grabs a camera and films the darkest moments unfolding before her eyes as she is derailed by M.E. (commonly known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a mysterious illness some still believe is “all in your head”.
In this story of love and loss, newlyweds Jennifer and Omar search for answers as they face unexpected obstacles with great heart. Often confined by her illness to the private space of her bed, Jen is moved to connect with others around the globe. Utilising Skype and social media, she unlocks a forgotten community with intimate portraits of four other families suffering similarly. Jennifer Brea’s wonderfully honest portrayal asks us to rethink the stigma around an illness that affects millions of people. Unrest is a vulnerable and eloquent personal documentary that is sure to hit closer to home than many could imagine.
Unrest world-premiered in January in the documentary competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for editing. It has since screened at SxSW, CPH:DOX, HotDocs, River Run (Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature), the Nashville Film Festival (Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature), and Sheffield Doc/Fest (Illuminate Award). It also has a companion VR piece which premiered at Tribeca and won the Jury Award for best VR at Sheffield/DocFest.
M.E. Support Review
After a difficult week with my health, Stuart bundled me into his car and we headed to a screening of Unrest in Crowborough, East Sussex. I dragged myself inside the community hall and slumped into a chair, hoping I’d make it through the film without falling asleep or losing concentration! Unrest has received fantastic media coverage, especially here in the UK, including an interview with Jennifer on BBC News. However, I still wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but as the film started we were slowly drawn into her world. Over the next 98 minutes the room’s silence was broken with tears, laughter and whispered words between the audience.
I found the first half of Unrest particularly hard to watch, as we were shown the devastating impact of M.E. on Jennifer’s life. Having been severely affected by M.E., as described in M.E. My Story, her struggles really hit home. Her story was broken up with some of the history behind this mysterious condition. We were also introduced to several other people, including severe M.E. sufferer Jessica Taylor-Bearma from The World of One Room, along with the family of Karina Hansen, who was forcibly taken from her home and placed in a Danish hospital to undergo psychological treatment. Jennifer also interviewed researchers, including Dr Ronald Davis, Director of the Stanford Genome Technology Center, whose son Whitney is severely ill with M.E. The global Millions Missing campaign was highlighted, which protests for increased government funding for research, clinical trials, medical education and public awareness.
As an M.E. sufferer and fellow activist, I was aware of everything covered in the film, although the insight into other people’s lives was incredibly moving. Hearing them express their worries and concerns, such as the solitude and restraints on their lives, gave me a powerful connection with this film. I launched M.E. Support to provide sufferers with a place to share their experiences, and Jennifer’s efforts with Unrest has given our plight an even greater platform. However, I’d have liked the film to end on a more positive note, such as an explanation of significant developments in research. Unrest is a wonderful educational tool for the medical profession, and I hope it will be broadcast on television to reach the greater public.
Stuart has been through every stage of my illness with me, and he also works in healthcare; therefore, I’d like to end this review with his thoughts on the film. He writes, “Although at times not the easiest film to watch, Unrest is a thought-provoking film which shows first-hand the struggles of M.E. sufferers in their day-to-day lives. Video diaries of several sufferers are utilised in the film to provide evidence of how M.E. affects them. Their ongoing challenges are documented, including coping with symptomology, acceptance and attaining diagnosis. Milestone moments provide positives in the film, such as showing how people can increase awareness and provide support to one another by sharing experiences and knowledge.” He concludes, “Unrest is a great insight into the lives of M.E. sufferers for those not aware of this debilitating illness, and it is a must-see for any professional working with those with M.E.”