What does it mean to direct a film while bed-ridden with a mysterious, misunderstood illness? For director Jennifer Brea, filmmaking becomes an extraordinary act of asserting her own humanity in the face of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). This harrowing medical mystery started as a documentation of Brea’s symptoms, which began when she was a PhD student at Harvard. The resulting film, “Unrest,” is a sensitive and arresting rally cry for increased awareness about this disease, and an existential exploration of the meaning of life while battling a crippling chronic illness.
Chronic fatigue syndrome has been an easy pop culture punchline, but the disease itself, which is twice as common as multiple sclerosis, is all too real. Brea puts her experience on-screen, including her worst moments, racked with agony, unable to move or speak. She contemplates if this is a life worth living through the tiny, glorious ups and the devastating downs of her illness.
Filmmaking gives Brea a purpose, technology gives her the way. From her bed, she directs film crews, interviewing fellow patients all over the world, immunologists and researchers. She traces the history of the autoimmune disease, which is vastly underfunded and researched, because its symptoms are confounding to those who don’t experience them and, as Brea and scientists suggest, because 85% of those afflicted are women.
If “Unrest” began as an assertion of her own autonomy, humanity and intellect despite her disease, it’s also generously an assertion of her subjects, detailing their triumphs, setbacks and inner lives. It’s a film that’s remarkably intimate, deeply edifying and a stirring call to action.
In English and Danish, with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica