Before we go any further, I must confess to you that prior to watching Jennifer Brea's Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Unrest that I was, in fact, one of "those" people.
What do I mean by "those" people?
I was one of those people referenced in the film who, like many Americans, felt a certain amount of cynicism when it came to someone's revelation that they were diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, clinically known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (or M.E., as it is often referred to in the film).
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has always felt like a diagnosis that gets used when there is no other explanation for what's going on, something along the lines of fibromyalgia and others. I mean, seriously, how could something called "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" be an actual illness? You're tired. You're just tired.
It likely speaks volumes about the effectiveness of Brea's emotionally raw yet infinitely intelligent film that I am no longer a cynic.
In fact, I just need to say it.
I was wrong.
As a paraplegic/double amputee with spina bifida myself, it's particularly disturbing to me that I was so quick to pre-judge a diagnosis simply because I'd never really taken the time to understand it. While Unrest can't possibly go into all of the science behind one of contemporary medicine's most misunderstood diagnoses, Brea's willingness to transparently share her own journey while weaving in the experiences of others makes the film an absolutely necessary view for anyone who's ever wondered about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or anyone actively experiencing it or loving someone who actively experiences it.
Brea was an active Harvard PhD student getting ready to marry the love of her life when her body started failing her. Hoping to shed light on her strange symptoms, Brea began filming her experiences as her dark experiences finally get a name - myalgic encephalomyelitis, or M.E.
Jennifer, with her new husband Omar by her side, begins to search for answers in this remarkably transparent, achingly vulnerable feature doc that also captured the Best Documentary Feature prize at the Nashville Film Festival and several other prizes along its festival journey. Often confined to her bed, she begins connecting to others via social media and Youtube and discovers a world of remarkably wonderful and intelligent people impacted by M.E. and whose stories fill the screen with an almost overwhelming sadness that is transcended only by the amount of love that one feels went into this remarkable doc.
The truth of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME is that it is a multi-system disease causing dysfunction of the neurological, immune, endocrine, and energy metabolism systems. It often follows an infection, in Brea's case it followed a severe sickness that included a fever of 114 degrees, and leaves 75% of those affected by it unable to work and 25% homebound or bed-ridden.
In other words, there's a science to it and it ain't pretty.
Unrest isn't always a pretty film to watch either. While the relationship between Jennifer and Omar is breathtaking, this journey itself is nothing short of heartbreaking and not resolved in nice and pretty ways by film's end. While it is the story of Jennifer and Omar that serves as the core of Unrest, is is their willingness to share the screen with others that helps what could have been just another "disease of the week" documentary turn into one of 2017's most emotionally honest and intellectually satisfying docs. In some ways, Unrest is a cousin to last year's Oscar-nominated Gleason, though this film lacks that film's self-absorption and staginess that created a feeling that we were seeing less transparency and more an overly manufactured documentary with an agenda but not actual purpose.
Unrest is vastly superior in every way.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic