A couple of weeks I came across the documentary film Unrest. I’ve now seen it a couple of times and really think that it is an important contribution to film as it explores the concept of illness and goes beyond the normal portrayals of it in media as something from which a character is either miraculously cured or dies from. Focusing on Jennifer Brea, the filmmaker’s life, Unrest looks at what it is like to live with a disabling chronic condition both physically and mentally, as well as how widespread an issue this is, yet is never really discussed. Instead as she puts it with chronic illness, “we disappear so you never see us at our worst”. Brea through the film successfully changes this.
Unrest started off as a series of clips that Brea made on her phone to document her symptoms and how ill she was so she could show this to doctors in an attempt to find answers, a diagnoses and be believed. These clips which have been retained throughout the film provide an accurate portrayal of what daily life is like for her. However the clips then evolved and through showing film of what her life was like before illness, with illness and interviewing others who are bed bound, scientists and medical professionals through Skype from her bed, Unrest has created a new way of making films. While Unrest focuses on Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) which Brea was eventually diagnosed with, the film however also is able to show what it is like to live with other disabling conditions too. What isn’t mentioned in the film but has been discussed in interviews since is that Brea also has diagnoses of Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) and so life with these conditions is also shown.
Brea explores her own personal history as going from someone who was studying for a PhD at Harvard, who had travelled the world, studied abroad and was extremely high flying and ambitious to being bed bound and wondering what her identity is as she grieves all she lost and might have been and wonders what her existence will consist of now. She explains she feels like she has “died but forced to watch the world move on”. Running alongside her own journey of being ill is the journey of chronic illness and ME/CFS too. As is explained by professionals and looking at historical data in the film longterm illnesses that are hard to diagnosis often have histories of being believed to be psychosomatic with sufferers being sectioned and diagnosed with hysteria before a biological cause was found. ME/CFS is still going through this process. As the majority of sufferers of ME/CFS and other autoimmune conditions are female the film explores how much has this influenced historically how the illnesses have been viewed by the medical community and the lack of research that often goes into these areas.
While the personal experience and history of ME/CFS is explored, Brea also explores the stories of others severely affected with the condition around the world. We learn of a young woman in Denmark who was sectioned as it was not believed she could be physically ill against her and her families wishes. Another woman in America tells of how her marriage fell apart after she got ill and answers couldn’t be found at first, until her daughter also got sick with the same condition. A former photographer who can no longer speak, eat or tolerate any noise or light has his story told by his family who have actively got involved in research about the condition, while a 23 year old sufferer from Kent, England who spent four years of her life in hospital has her life depicted. While films exploring topics such as ME/CFS have been absent, the fact that the condition affects millions around the world is not ignored within this film. A portion of Unrest examines the protests and campaign ‘Millions Missing’ which aimed to get governments to sit up and take notice that people within their states were missing from everyday life due to severe, chronic illness that was being ignored. The Millions Missing campaign is extremely clever as it raised awareness of people who are absent from society by simply placing their shoes with a label of what the person was missing somewhere public. Its really worth looking up if you have a spare five minutes.
Unrest’s main aim is to raise awareness of chronic conditions, their history, how widespread they are and how these conditions are absent from public consciousness and hidden behind closed doors. It does this effectively and the film is definitely hard hitting and impacting on the audience. For me personally though what stood out was that the film showed that severe illness is not just something that happens to people who do not want to work and want to look for an excuse to stay at home. It shows it is very real and has devastating effects for people who very much want to be part of life and who were extremely active studying, working, being part of families, travelling and living life to the fullest before getting sick. I thought this was incredibly important as people who are ill are so often referred to as ‘benefit scroungers’ and made to feel like we are simply trying to cheat a system to avoid responsibility.
Another important element in the film for me was that it focused not just on the individual patient’s experience of being chronically ill but also the wider implications of this on those around them too; how families are affected, how simple daily tasks became impossible etc. The guilt of the sufferer and changes families had to make was explored in detail. Unrest is not without humour and hope. Being ill does not mean you stop living completely and sometimes it is the small things that many people can take for granted that can mean a lot in one person with a chronic illnesses day and this was portrayed really well. Finally a note should also be made that the cinematography and music was also fantastic.
If you have a spare hour and a half and are looking for something to watch that is different from other films, is very well put together or simply explores issues that the media usually shies away from I highly recommend giving this a go.