Unrest is a documentary that was difficult to make and a challenging one to watch. The film is the debut feature by journalist, Jennifer Brea who chronicles her life with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) or chronic fatigue syndrome. She also speaks to others that have this condition by conducting interviews from her bed via Skype. ME is a disease that has been maligned and met with scepticism by the medical establishment because no cause has been discovered. One thing that is clear from this film is that there needs to be more research into this mysterious, debilitating affliction.
In 2012, Brea had it all. She was engaged to a Princeton Professor (Omar Wasow) and about to study a doctoral thesis at Harvard. As a young girl Brae had an insatiable curiosity and love for live. She was an active person and a keen world traveller. But these things would be challenged when she came down with a very high fever and an incapacitating infection.
Brea was initially diagnosed with conversion disorder. This illness was previously described as “Hysteria” in history. The doctors chalked it up to a patient’s experience with a past trauma. Brea eventually received a diagnosis of ME and her condition is one that varies in intensity. She has good moments where she appears healthy and vital and at other points she is bed-ridden and crying out in pain. It’s a situation that Brae says was so isolating that she turned to the internet for answers. It was here that she found a whole community of people who have this same illness.
Unrest chronicles Brea’s experiences as well as showing how other people live with ME. There is the case of Jessica Taylor-Bearman, a young English woman who has been confined to a bed for years and now has the bones of a centenarian. There is an American woman whose husband failed to believe her and only came to accept things when their daughter was also diagnosed with ME. There is also a university academic whose son has lost the ability to speak due to this disease.
There is an estimated 17 million people living with ME worldwide. The patients are treated differently depending on the country they reside in. This film describes the case regarding Karina Hansen from Denmark who was forcibly removed from her family and institutionalised for a few years. In other countries, patients can be faced with apathetic or ill-informed doctors who don’t know how to treat ME and they often resort to their own natural remedies. Individuals with ME are also at a high risk of suicide.
Unrest is a film that illuminates the real-wold practicalities for those people living with ME. It’s an informative and challenging film that can make for uncomfortable viewing at times. This is ultimately a documentary that is a useful chapter in the dialogue that needs to be had about this affliction and proves how important it is that more research is done.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is running until the 20th of August, with Unrest screening on the 5th and 7th of August. For tickets and more details on these screenings, head HERE.