Twenty-eight year-old Jennifer Brea was working on her PhD at Harvard and was months away from marrying the love of her life when she contracted a mysterious fever that left her so ill that she became bedbound.
Often in excruciating pain, Brea became increasingly unwell - eventually losing the ability to even sit in a wheelchair. However, her doctors told her that it was "all in her head" and dismissed her concerns.
Unable to convey the seriousness and depth of her symptoms to her doctor, Brea began a video diary on her iPhone. This diary, which shows in moving and often upsetting scenes the true nature of her debilitating illness, eventually became inspired her to make a documentary film.
“As I began searching for answers, I fell down this rabbit hole and discovered a hidden world of thousands of patients all around the globe, many of whom had disappeared from their lives and used the internet to connect with each other and the outside world,” Brea recalls.
“We were all grappling with a disease called ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis), also known as
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS),” Brea explains. “This wasn’t a disease I had ever really heard of, read about, or seen films made about, even though it is an extremely common condition. It’s a story that’s been flying under the radar for the last 30 years.”
As a result, while Unrest follows the story of Brea and her husband Omar, it also documents the stories of other ME patients. We meet Jessica, a young girl in the UK who has been confined to her bedroom since she was 14, and Ron Davis, a Stanford geneticist who is trying to save his son’s life in spite of some incredible obstacles.
In the course of making her documentary, Brea met thousands of people suffering with symptoms similar to hers. She couldn’t believe how isolated they were and, worse, how often they just weren’t believed by the medical community.
As a result, Unrest became more than just an outlet for Brea. It became a way of raising public awareness about ME and the injustice that sufferers around the world were being dismissed.
"An entire community had been ignored by medicine and had missed out on the last 30 years of science,” explains Brea. “A part of the problem is that many of us are literally too ill to leave our homes and so doctors and the broader public rarely see us. That is when I decided to make a film.”
Unrest leaves a lasting legacy. Brea has used her film to get doctors to think again about this condition. “It’s my hope that in sharing this world and these people that I have come to profoundly love, that we can build a movement to transform the lives of patients with ME; accelerate the search for a cure; and bring a greater level of compassion, awareness, and empathy to the millions upon millions of patients and their loved ones wrestling with chronic illness or invisible disabilities,” Brea says.
Of course, the journey is far from over. However, thanks to Brea’s incredible documentary and her remarkable and inspiring work, the future looks positive. (Once you have watched Unrest, read Brea’s recent medical update here.)
Directing From Her Bed
When Brea began shooting her documentary, she was completely confined to her bed. As a result, she built a global producing team, hired crews from around the world and directed them all from her bed.
She conducted interviews via Skype and an iPad teleprompt (what Brea calls a poor man’s Interrotron). She set up a live feed that allowed her to see in real time what her director of photography, Christian Laursen, and her producers were shooting.
Brea says that “filmmaking allowed me to travel again” and that the act of making her documentary “became a way for me to transcend the limitations of my body and connect to other people and other worlds.”
World-Changing Doc Recommendations
Unrest is part of the documentaries that change the world sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
I would also like to include the following honourable mentions: Dear Zachary, Food Inc., An Inconvenient Truth and Bowling For Columbine.
Do you have any filmmaking documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.