When Harvard PhD student Jennifer Brea is struck down at 28 by a fever that leaves her bedridden, doctors tell her it's "all in her head." Determined to live, she turns her camera on herself and her community, a hidden world of millions confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME, commonly called chronic fatigue syndrome.
The theme of this film could not be more timely -- an accomplished, strong young woman falls ill with a mystifying malady and suddenly discovers that doctors dismiss her symptoms, misdiagnose the disease, or tell her it's all in her head. Once she deteriorates to the point of being bedridden, she realizes that she has been all but disappeared. Only through social media -- one of the few ways that allow her to remain connected to the world -- does she realize that millions around the world have been rendered similarly invisible.
Directed mostly from her bed and including footage of herself shot on an iPhone, this documentary weaves together director Jen Brea's personal story -- centered mostly around how she and her husband, Omar Wasow deal with the way her disease upends their lives -- with those of other patients. Much in the film is shocking and indeed hard to believe. It's hard to believe that some ME/CFS patients (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome) suffer from a form of the disease so severe that they must live in darkened rooms, unable to bear light, sound, or touch -- and that some must be fed intravenously. It's hard to believe that patients can be taken from their homes and forcibly institutionalized because health policy in some countries continues to be based on the outdated notion that the illness is psychosomatic. It's hard to believe that an illness so common (an estimated 17-30 million around the world) could be so under researched or so devastating.
I could not be more pleased to learn that Unrest has made the short list for the Oscars best documentary category. It's an underdog -- the film got its start through a Kickstarter campaign and has gone from a Sundance audience award, to place on PBS's Independent Lens lineup, to the notice of the Academy. Furthermore, it's directed by a woman of color who is disabled and is speaking on behalf of an extraordinarily disenfranchised group of people similarly disabled by the disease. It's easier to let people disappear, easier to imagine that it will never be you. But it's also #timeforunrest.
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