Here’s everything I knew a week ago about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome: next to nothing. Oh sure, I vaguely knew it was a disease that made people feel tired and worn out – but I didn’t have any idea what that actually entailed for those suffering from CFS (or, as it’s less commonly known, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis).
Unrest (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, September 29th) details the experiences of filmmaker Jennifer Brea, who contracted the disease after suffering an extreme fever and half a dozen post-fever infections a few years ago. Needless to say, her diagnosis changed her life and presented her with significant challenges.
Perhaps I told a little lie in my first paragraph: I’m pretty sure those 80’s news references to ‘yuppie flu’ made an impression on me back in the day. The framing of CFS as an excuse for lazy, fickle, or oversensitive privileged young people was widely prevalent at the time and largely went unquestioned in the media.
Initially, the elephant of doubt remains in the room: Brea met her husband at Harvard while both were pursuing their PhDs; most of the people whose struggles she details in her film are determinedly middle-class. That doesn’t necessarily support the ‘yuppie flu’ canard – more likely, the resources available to the middle-class and well off simply mean poor and working-class sufferers of CFE remain invisible – but it does mean that Brea needs to work extra hard to combat it.
By and large, she succeeds: from what we see here, the disease looks and feels very real to those stricken by it. If you were skeptical about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome before watching Unrest, I suspect you’ll probably be rethinking your opinion as you leave the theater.
Brea’s film effectively places CFS in its proper historical context. Over 80% of those diagnosed with CFS and other auto-immune disorders are women, and the syndrome belongs to a long line of so-called ‘women’s maladies’ such as hysteria and multiple sclerosis, which unbelievably was once known as ‘hysterical paralysis’.
At times, Unrest makes for difficult and uncomfortable viewing. On a good day, someone with CFS might be able to walk a few steps before retreating to their bed; on a bad one they suffer intense physical symptoms that make it difficult for them to speak or think. Many sufferers have committed suicide because of the incurable disease’s unrelenting grip.
The medical establishment continues to keep its distance from CFS/ME, and Unrest can only highlight a handful of doctors and researchers who acknowledge its reality. Accordingly, Brea also draws attention to the CFS activist movement (represented by an organization called Millions Missing), which is fighting for awareness and research dollars through mass protest.
Footnote: there’s one particularly surreal moment in Unrest: as Brea’s husband Omar talks to someone on the telephone, a poster for the 1972 cannibalism comedy The Folks at Red Wolf Inn looms in the otherwise empty background. Is Omar a fan of this lowbrow psychotronic gem?