‘Unrest’ Seeks to Create More Visibility to the People with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

By Tracy Wang

Directed and produced by Jennifer Brea, ‘Unrest’ recounts Brea’s journey of finding out what is causing her to be bedridden and what it takes to live with ME/CFS, or called chronic fatigue syndrome. A syndrome that is affecting about a million people in the United States, but is largely invisible, chronic fatigue syndrome is the one that changed Brea’s life; through this documentary film, Brea hopes to help all the people who are affected by this syndrome to have more visibility. This film is certainly among the most revealing and educational films that need to be watched by all.

‘Unrest’ begins with contrasting scenes of Brea struggling to get from one room to another in her house and her being a little kid, a young woman who ‘wanted to swallow the world whole’. Then, it goes back to her syndrome’s origin when she first had a fever. Though the fever finally went down, she remained weak and unable to move around like before. More symptoms, sensitivity to light and sound, inability to speak at times, followed, and doctors said she either had conversion disorder or too much stress for her finals. When she was finally diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, she started to reach out to many other people who have the same syndrome. The film shifts back and forth between stories of other patients from around the world, and how Brea deals with her illness with her loving husband, Omar.

With this syndrome’s history being hysteria, the film delves into discussing how people with this syndrome was treated by doctors and society and how society still has serious misunderstanding toward the validity of their physical symptoms. As ME/CFS patients open up about their stories of loss, grief, pain and hope, we are given rare accounts of their relationships with their loved ones and the world, and how they wish to have more visibility to this syndrome as well as to the seventeen million people who are dealing with this around the world.

To a person who has never heard of this syndrome or the number of people who are suffering from this, ‘Unrest’ is a necessary addition to other documentary films that educate and allow us to have a peek inside the lives of those who have chronic fatigue syndrome. With many in society considering this syndrome as fake and only psychological symptom, this film opens our eyes, and provides an inclusive and complete picture of the loss of freedom to move, the guilt of robbing loved ones their lives, the unpredictability of various symptoms, and the difficulty in finding hope and will to live with all these emotional turmoil. Because of the scientific explanations and raw honesty from patients as well as their loved ones, audiences are instantly included in the close circle of those few who understand this syndrome.

Throughout the film, we are provided with powerful scenes and images which strike a chord in our hearts. One of the most telling scene is the very first scene when we could only hear a woman’s strained breaths in the dark screen. From that first scene, we immediately have a sense of loss of hope, struggle and pain, and with the ensuing scenes containing Brea’s struggle in getting onto her bed and videos of her youth and teenage life of traveling and dreaming, we witness a contrast so huge that we are completely invested in the upcoming stories and narratives. Other scenes such as witnessing Jessica, a girl with the syndrome for over eight years, standing in a swimming pool with another woman’s help, the shoes of patients sitting on the ground for a protest, and parents waiting for the institution to give their daughter back, are all equally significant in showing all kinds of situations they could be in. Even though the beginning scenes feel rather hopeless and dark, the ending scenes of many loved ones taking care of their wife and children give off of a more positive, perhaps hopeful tone for a future in which society fully recognizes the scope and existence of this syndrome and health institutions can put more effort in finding a cure before more chronic fatigue syndrome patients are lost.