Friday 20 October 2017

Moving forwards: "Unrest"

It sounds like a film-school exercise: make a motion picture about someone who cannot move. The truly terrifying thing about the new documentary Unrest, which heightens the challenge by being a motion picture about people who can't move directed by someone who can barely move, is that nothing about it was born of choice: here is one of those rare projects that everyone involved presumably wishes to high heaven they didn't have to start out on. It opens with discombobulating wobblycam footage of a twentysomething woman labouring to haul herself off the floor and onto a bed: believe it or not, this is our director-host's big entrance. The woman is Jennifer Brea, a sometime Ivy League high-flier whose rampant social mobility - excellent career prospects, handsome, Oprah-approved tech-whizz beau, much travel to far-flung climes - was suddenly and irreversibly halted by the crippling condition known as ME, or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Brea took up filming herself in the early stages of physical degeneration so as to document her symptoms, in the hope some medically trained onlooker might spot something that would succeed in rebooting her fritzing system; the camera became a crutch, a means of reaching out for help.

Hours of YouTube footage that Brea discovered while bedbound suggested she wasn't alone in this, so after a while she began filming the stories of others, and the testimony of experts in the field, interviewing via Skype, directing by proxy. We get a very real sense, watching Unrest, of Brea the indomitable go-getter, determined not to let her malfunctioning mitochondria get in the way of stitching together what counts as the first comprehensive onscreen treatment of ME and other comparable conditions - a film that carries us all from yellowing cases of hysteria to a place of greater knowledge. The facts are stark, and often staggering: some 17 million sufferers around the world, of whom 25% are permanently bedbound and some 85% are female, leading Brea to wonder whether the male medical establishment has been in less of a hurry to do the heavy lifting on ME than they have been on other epidemics. (She uncovers one nasty episode in so-called liberal Denmark, where a huffy doctor - quite possibly the inspiration for Dr. Helmer on Lars von Trier's The Kingdom - had one young female patient with ME-like symptoms locked away in an asylum.)

Where AIDS, which came to light around the same historical moment, eventually found itself halted by effective courses of treatment, opinions still differ on what even to call this condition - CFS, yuppie flu, Epstein-Barr - and a big diagnostic problem has always been that it affects sufferers in very different ways: Brea herself can't stand upright some days, but recovers enough to go on walks in the country around the film's midpoint, only to succumb thereafter to horrific-seeming cerebral pain that leaves her horizontal and spouting gibberish. At this point, a caveat may be in order. For anyone possessed of even the slightest trace of empathy, Unrest's first half cannot fail to be a painful watch, staggering as it does between individuals forced to exist in extremes of agony or exhaustion. Even approached as a medical mystery/whodunnit - such as that nice Dr. Greene was faced with on e.r. back in the day - the film is impaired by the fact our detective heroine is prone to collapsing in the wake of any breakthroughs, and can find no immediate solution with which to warm our cockles. She does, however, cover an admirable amount of ground - doubly admirable, if we factor in the limitations the condition places on this filmmaker.

Part of Unrest's project, an extension of those YouTube confessionals, is to counter the invisibility that has driven many CFS sufferers to feel isolated, scared or depressed, and in extreme cases, to attempt suicide; yet Brea is also alert to the strains CFS places on even loving relationships, and how, in the absence of any clear, coherent medical plan of action, the usual cranks and quacks have stepped in to proffer miracle cures, from mould-free tents to huffing aerosol gasses - many tested here in a Spurlocky intermission that yields welcome chuckles but no signs of improvement. Casting around for answers always means rejecting the wrong ones, though, and the power of Unrest lies in seeing a young woman using her remaining privilege and resources to cut through the claims of the snake-oil salesmen - and a more general fug of despair - and thereby come to the aid of others. I can imagine the film becoming a source of immense consolation, possibly even cheer, for anyone living with this condition, and a source of some fascination for anybody with an interest in the workings of the human mind and body. Let's hope someone sees it and cracks the code eventually: the sobering message of this agonising labour of love is that it could happen to you, too.

Unrest opens in selected cinemas from today.

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