'Unrest': Film Review | Sundance 2017

Medical-community confusion and first-person suffering make for a tough but worthwhile doc.

Jennifer Brea, trying to cope with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, makes a doc about the little-understood disease.

Late in Jennifer Brea's Unrest, a doctor informs us that Multiple Sclerosis, the devastating nervous system disorder, was viewed by doctors as a "hysterical" illness — one essentially invented in the sufferer's own mind — right up until the CAT scan was introduced, allowing previously dismissive doctors to see what was going on inside their patients' bodies. Unrest finds a similar difficulty facing people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a debilitating but controversial disorder that is barely understood and in some quarters denied entirely. Using her own experience with the syndrome as a springboard, Brea offers an affecting film that, when made available on video, will be embraced by the millions suffering CFS worldwide.

Brea was once a world traveler, an active and highly educated person. But during PhD work at Harvard, she was struck one day by a 104.7-degree fever. From then on, long after the fever was gone, she often found herself barely capable of getting out of bed, sensitive to light and sound, crawling inch by inch around her home to get even the smallest things done.

Doctors told her she was dehydrated or stressed, diagnoses Brea found useless; another told her she had a psychosomatic illness caused by some long-buried trauma. Unconvinced, she began her own research, and found CFS, also known as myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), which is said to affect a million Americans, perhaps 17 million worldwide.

Through YouTube videos and internet groups, Brea connected with many others who had similar stories. She began interviewing them via Skype, and enlisting camera crews to help with more sophisticated remote conversations. Through her we meet Jessica, a young adult from Kent, England, who celebrated her 16th through 21st birthdays in bed; as a result of inactivity, osteoporosis has given her "the bones of a 100-year-old."

More disturbing is to see how other countries have chosen to deal with diseases some doctors believe to be largely psychological. In Denmark, police arrived one day and carried away a family's CFS-afflicted daughter; officials hospitalized her against her will, refusing to let her see her parents on the basis that they nurtured her belief in the illness.

Brea and doctors seek out facts about ME, reporting that it's a "spectrum disorder" that is twice as common as MS. In the course of her research, Brea experiments with an exotic array of remedies that have eased symptoms for others. Adoring husband Omar sometimes has his patience tested as she ingests hookworms, for instance, or pitches a tent in the back yard to remove herself from even tiny amounts of mold.

In the end, Brea and others direct their energies toward public-awareness campaigns, fighting against involuntary hospitalizations and calling for research into a syndrome that — like lupus, Lyme disease and other recent discoveries — will be doubly tormenting to its victims unless science can come to terms with it.


Production company: Shella Films

Director: Jennifer Brea

Screenwriters: Jennifer Brea, Kim Roberts

Producers: Jennifer Brea, Lindsey Dryden, Patricia E. Gillespie

Executive producers: Deborah Hoffmann, Ruth Ann Harnisch, Lisa Gunn, Donna Fairman Wilson, Dan Cogan, Ian Darling, Regina K. Scully, Lynda Weinman

Director of photography: Sam Heesen, Christian Laursen

Editors: Kim Roberts, Emiliano Battista

Composer: Bear McCreary

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (SidebarOrSection)

Sales: Kevin Iwashina, Preferred Content; Josh Bruan, Submarine Entertainment


96 minutes