Sundance Film Review: ‘Unrest’

'Unrest': Sundance Film Festival Review

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferers get a podium to discuss their still little-understood condition.

A largely mysterious condition that reportedly afflicts as many as 17 million people worldwide, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome still flummoxes most physicians, and remains frequently dismissed as a psychosomatic “illness” — including by some nations. Still, it’s hard to buy the “all in your head” diagnosis when seeing the long-term, sometimes entirely bedridden victims of CFS in “Unrest.” Director Jennifer Brea is one of them herself, and this first-feature documentary chronicles her own struggles while taking in the perspectives of other patients and experts around the globe. Though the “Patient, film thyself” concept is starting to risk overexposure — Sundance alone premieres two such features this year, the other being ALS-themed “It’s Not Dark Yet” — “Unrest” is a high-grade example of the form that’s consistently involving, with content diverse enough to avoid the tunnel-visioned pitfalls of diarist cinema.

Narrating her own tale of drastic, inexplicable loss (medical science still doesn’t know what causes CFS) and necessarily sporadic attempts to fight back, Brea starts out by painting a picture of the person she used to be: an inveterate world traveler, among other things, interested in sampling every culture and experience. Educated at Harvard and Princeton, she found a like-minded soulmate in Kenya-born internet analyst, social-network pioneer and Princeton professor Omar Wasow, whom she married. But three years later, at age 28, after contracting a fever of nearly 105, she  began to experience a never-ending panoply of symptoms including extreme exhaustion, numbness, acute pain, uncontrolled movement, and extreme sensitivity to light and noise. Seeing umpteen specialists, she was at first told she must just be physically manifesting a delayed psychological reaction to “some distant trauma” she might not even remember.

But eventually she discovered a whole hidden community of “the missing” — others who had basically lost all normal life functions to the condition some prefer now to term Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or ME. Among those given a podium here (through both Skype chats and location footage principally from the documentary’s two d.p.’s) are Georgia housewife Leeray, whose husband left her because he thought he was acting as a “crutch” for an imaginary illness. (A decade later, he stopped doubting when one of their daughters also got the illness.) The son of Stanford genetics professor Ron Davis is so diminished that he’s been unable to speak, let alone leave his bed, for more than a year when we meet him.

The most alarming case is that of Danish teen Karina Hansen, whose parents were horrified when police virtually raided their home and forcibly removed her to a state facility — because Denmark is one of the countries that categorizes CFS as a psychiatric condition, and thus considered her a “captive” who was not getting proper treatment. (Incredibly, it took three years of protest before she was released, with no improvement.) The questionable reason that government doctor Per Fink offers for tearing families apart is that viewing CFS as strictly psychological is “more interesting” to him.

As for Brea — she’s first seen unable even to lift herself from the floor, though her condition is variable. She has good periods usually followed by long, hard crashes into pain and dead weariness. Patients are shown to have come up with numerous home-remedy “cures” (most of a dietary nature), most of which have fleeting impact at best. More successful are Brea’s efforts at orchestrating heightened awareness for a syndrome that still attracts considerable public skepticism, and whose medical research is poorly funded as a result. Through it all, she has the unconditional support of husband Wasow, though in darker moments she agonizes that she’s ruined his high-achieving life by handing him a caregiver role he insists he does not resent.

Proceeding at a measured pace — no film about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome should be over-energetic — “Unrest” ably juggles content that’s wide-ranging enough in tone, style and information to prevent the film over-dwelling on Brea’s personal laments. It’s gracefully edited by Kim Roberts and Emiliano Battista, with Bear McCreary contributing an affecting, string-based score.

Sundance Film Review: 'Unrest'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 21, 2017. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

(Documentary) A Shella Films and Little by Little production in association with Impact Partners and Chicken & Egg Pictures. (International sales: Preferred Content, Los Angeles.) Producers: Jennifer Brea, Lindsay Dryden, Patricia E. Gillespie. Executive producer, Deborah Hoffmann. Co-producers, Alysa Nahmias, Anna Troldtoft Hjorth, Leslie Berriman, Nion McEvoy, Michael J. Thies, Reid Hoffmann, Michelle Yee, Mara Sandler.

Crew

Director: Jennifer Brea. Writers: Brea, Kim Roberts. Camera (color, HD): Sam Heesen, Christian Laursen. Editor: Roberts, Emiliano Battista. Music: Bear McCreary.

With

Jennifer Brea, Omar Wasow, Jessica Taylor, Leeray Denton, Karina Hansen, Ron Davis, Nancy Klimas, Paul Cheney.

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  1. samuel says:

    Jessica L E Taylor who features in this documentary has now wrote her own book all about her childhood and growing up battling m.e please help support this important campaign  https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/darkglassesbook/a-girl-behind-dark-glasses?ref=81meui

  2. Barbara McMullen says:

    Fabulous review. You really paid attention to the film and got it. As a CFS/ME sufferer, I thank-you.

  3. Ladyliegh says:

    To accomplish creating this wonderful film, while sick with CFS/ME, is nothing short of a miracle! I certainly admire Jen’s spirit & determination to spread the word of this devastating illness.
    After being sick with CFS/ME for 30 years, I can testify to the unbelievable frustration that comes with this disease. For many people it takes years to be diagnosed & they suffer unimaginable indignities from the medical community. Friends & family have trouble understanding , it is often referred to as a psychosomatic illness. We are genuinely sick & too exhausted to deal with those who don’t understand. That is why what Jen has done is so amazing, she spent what little energy she had to create something to help all of the CFS/ME community. Hopefully this will dispel many of the illusions & falsitys that confuse people. It is way past time for the medical community to treat us with respect & take CFS/ME seriously. Way past time for researchers to work to understand & find a cure for this devastating disease. Hopefully through this movie & other media, Jen has made a real difference in how CFS/ME is perceived & it will inspire all who watch it.
    (To be kind, loving, understanding, patient, determined, hopeful & considerate)

  4. Alisa Neale says:

    Will this be realised in the U.K.? And do you know where and when?

  5. Loetta Vann says:

    You know, it just does not seem like it was so very long ago when Jen and a couple of her friends from school posted an idea to make a film on Kickstart. From the very first time we saw her video pitch we knew they were on to something good. We were not the only ones to recognize a good ambassador because her kickstart action blew all fund raising efforts previously known at Kickstart. I am hoping that this film will start a discussion around the country, not just with patients, but also with their families, and the medical community. Watching her Ted Talk with my parents permitted a kind of conversation with them that I had previously not been able to have. For those of us that have the sense that the people around us just do not want to hear any more about this fascinating illness this movie could be a real good ice breaker. I am looking forward to it coming to a theater near us. I fell ill July 5, 1985 while on a study abroad program in Mainland China along with many of my classmates. It was the same year the US saw cluster outbreaks in both California, Nevada and New York.

  6. Kelly says:

    Great review, but that headline is messed up: …get a podium to discuss their still little-understood.

    Little understood what?

  7. Jennifer Brea she’s a great director. i watched her movies and they are great. looking forward to see this movie.

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