For a time, Jennifer Brea had a near-perfect life. At 25 years old she was a PhD student at Princeton and married to the man of her dreams, internet analyst and social networking pioneer Omar Wasow. But then the sickness came. At first it seemed like an ordinary fever. But after it went away an infection flared within her. And then another. And then another. Soon she couldn’t move about without a wheelchair. Finally, she couldn’t move out of bed at all. And still the infections kept coming. Before she knew it, she had been bedridden for over a year. A small army of medical specialists couldn’t figure out what was wrong, some even scorning her and saying it was all in her head. And more and more, she began having suicidal fantasies. Desperate for answers, she turned to youtube where she encountered a small community of other bedridden shut-ins with similar symptoms. At last, she had a name for her illness: myalgic encephalomyelitis, otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Over one million people in the United States alone suffer from this misunderstood and widely ridiculed condition; scientists as of yet haven’t figured out what causes it, and the few times it’s been mentioned in the media have usually been at the expense of the victims who are called lazy or fakers. Her new film Unrest—shot largely on her iPhone—became both a video diary of her struggle with CFS and a rallying cry for educating the public of this horrific condition.
Andm quite frankly, it’s a mess. That’s not a criticism, merely an objective observation—considering the circumstances under which it was made and Brea’s not being a trained filmmaker or documentarian, it’s a minor miracle the film was made in the first place and watchable in the second. It was never going to be one of those highly polished documentaries that take the international film festival circuit by storm. But that’s alright: it never had to be. But it’s still a mess. What begins as a portrait of her illness veers off into a series of vignettes about other sufferers she’s met through social media. Here’s a young woman from Kent, England whose been trapped in her room for over eight years. Despite being in her twenties, she has the bones of a 100-year old thanks to CFS-induced osteoporosis. Here’s a mother from America who developed the disease after giving birth to several children. After her exasperated husband bailed on her, she had to figure out how to raise her kids while barely being able to move. Interspersed with these vignettes are domestic scenes of Brea and Wasow attempting quack cures they found online, everything from moving into a mold-free tent in their backyard to traveling to the American midwest for a “desert cure” to infecting themselves with hookworms. And finally, the film takes an unexpectedly political turn when it turns its eye towards a teenager in Denmark who was stolen from her parents and institutionalized as a psychiatric case because their courts don’t recognize CFS as a physical illness. This plot thread climaxes with Brea helping to form the #MillionsMissing movement, a worldwide protest against the mistreatment of CFS sufferers and their misrepresentation in the media.
What keeps Unrest from collapsing in on itself is that Brea uses her relationship with Wasow as the skeleton upon which the rest of the film is supported. By moving their struggles—the public breakdowns, the private arguments, the brief moments of optimism, the crippling periods of defeat—to the forefront, we never lose sight of the people at the film’s core. It demonstrates an emotional truthfulness and vulnerability I wish more documentarians would mimic.