Review: Unrest

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Unrest screens on Friday at 2 p.m. at Hanesbrands Theatre, Saturday at 5 p.m. at SECCA and April 2 at 8 p.m. at Hanesbrands Theatre.

The opening sequence of Jennifer Brea’s autobiographical documentary starts with a disturbing sequence. The first scene shows her in a state of near paralysis dragging herself across the floor of her home. Soon her husband, the internet visionary Omar Wasow, is driving Brea to the hospital and then advising her to tell the doctors enough that they can help her, but not too much lest “they think you’re a kind of mental patient.”

Unrest has a disarming kind of quality, framed almost as a whimsical, experimental project by a Harvard Ph.D. candidate baffled by the onset of a mysterious and debilitating condition that turns out to be to be myalgic encephalomyelitis, better known as chronic fatigue syndrome.

The film opens a window to viewers on Brea’s initial uncertainty and sense of terror. The subjective approach sets up a gut-punch of righteous advocacy to argue for increased funding to research the disease, and for visibility and respect for millions of patients who are often mistaken as being simply lazy or suffering from hypochondria.

Some of the most affecting scenes include other patients and their families around the world whom Brea befriends. There’s Danish teenage girl who is kidnapped from her parents’ home and institutionalized by the state. There’s the woman whose husband divorces her because he thinks his presence is a crutch, and years later recognizes his mistake and confesses to her: “I don’t know if there’s enough life left in me to make it up to you, but I will try.” And there’s the professor of biochemistry and genetics at Stanford University who is watching his son waste away while frantically pleading for funding from the National Institutes of Health in an effort to discover a cure. “Maybe we should tell them,” his wife says, “we’d like for them to come around before our son is dead.”

Brea knits together a global community in a way that is beautiful and empowering. Her voice lifts a film that is both charged with urgency and slowed down to the speed of a disease that freezes lives in place while the world seems to pass by. “Sickness doesn’t terrify me, and death doesn’t terrify me,” Brea says. “What terrifies me is that you can disappear because someone’s telling the wrong story about you.”

— Jordan Green

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