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From the Archives: Chronicling Chronic Illness

Editor’s Note:

Years before a pandemic left millions sequestered at home and prompted a vogue for quarantine cinema, filmmaker Jennifer Brea showed what is possible to achieve within a highly restricted environment. Brea anticipated many aspects of the COVID-remade world in her documentary Unrest (2017), which chronicles her debilitating experience with ME and which she made largely from her sickbed, using her iPad and Skype. This “act of resistance and bravery,” as Moodie writes below, chimes with the current moment, when another serious viral illness is leaving many sufferers with mysterious and long-lasting symptoms.

— Rebecca Prime

Unrest: Gender, Chronic Illness, and the Limits of Documentary Visibility

Megan Moodie

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2018, Volume 71, Number 4

The breath in the dark is a message.

This is what I think, immediately. I know what it is, that sound: the quick inhalation, the holding, the sucking-teeth sound of a difficult exhale. If you have never lived with a chronic illness or pain, the opening moments of Jennifer Brea’s new documentary Unrest (2017), in which one is greeted by a black screen and the sounds of effortful breathing, present an interesting mystery: what is this woman doing? But I am in on the secret, even without an image. Some daily task has presented itself as a Herculean challenge and a woman is at the edge of her physical boundaries, trying to finish the walk or get to the couch or simply, sometimes, ride it out.

Jennifer Brea, the woman breathing in the dark, suffers from myalagic encephomyalitis (ME), also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). Unrest is the story of her diagnosis and partial recovery: part detective story, part autobiography, and part documentation of an illness-based social movement. Narratively, it follows Brea, a PhD student at Harvard as the film begins, when a strange and serious viral illness leaves her weak and exhausted, with worsening neurological and physical symptoms such as periodically losing the ability to speak and walk, particularly after physical exertion. After many visits to many specialists (ending at Princeton Hospital, in the town where Brea now lives with her husband Omar Wasaw), Brea is finally told that she has ME, and is one of the small number of people who are seriously incapacitated by the disease.

The article can be read in its entirety here.