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Unrest (2017 film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed byJennifer Brea
Written by
Produced by
  • Sam Heesen
  • Christian Laursen
Edited byKim Roberts
Emiliano Battista
Music byBear McCreary
Shella Films
Distributed byShella Films
Release date
  • January 20, 2017 (2017-01-20) (Sundance)
Running time
97 minutes

Unrest is a 2017 documentary film produced and directed by Jennifer Brea.[1][2] The film tells the story of how Jennifer and her new husband faced an illness that struck Jennifer just before they married. Initially dismissed by doctors, she starts filming herself to document her illness and connects with others who are home- or bedbound with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.

The documentary was produced over a four year period, in which Brea was mostly bed-bound. The documentary shows Brea's route to diagnosis and the world of other people homebound with the illness. Unrest was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best documentary feature, and won several film festival awards, including the jury award for editing at the Sundance Film Festival.


The documentary follows Jennifer Brea, who was a PhD student at Harvard before she fell ill at age 28.[3] Brea gets progressively more ill and is initially disbelieved by doctors, who attribute her symptoms to stress. She starts a video diary to demonstrate the severity of her illness to her doctors, which later grew into the Unrest documentary.[4] The initial shot shows Brae crawling on the floor, unable to walk.[5] She finally receives a diagnosis of myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome.[4]

Online, she and her husband search for answers and she connects with others with the illness.[4] A women in the US is left by her husband, who believed the illness is psychological. They reconcile only after their daughter develops ME, convincing him of the illness's reality. In Denmark, a girl is taken by police into a psychiatric hospital against her will, as authorities believed her parents were nurturing her illness.[5] The son of genetist Ron Davis is shown, who at that point had been unable to speak for a year due to the illness.[6] A young woman in the UK has developed osteoporosis, as she has been unable to leave her bed for years.[7]

The film is interspersed with interviews of scientists and immunologists, who talk about the limited research funding available for the disease. They attribute this the difficult-to-understand nature of symptoms and to the fact that most people with ME are women.[8] The documentary finally depicts the 2016 Millions Missing protests, which advocated for increased awareness and support for ME patients globally.[9]


The production of Unrest began when Brea picked up the camera to film her symptoms because she was being dismissed by doctors in the spring of 2012.[10] Initially, she had wanted to possibly write a book using her videos as a source, but when she noticed doctors started believing her after seeing her recordings, she decided that the story would be better told visually.[11]

The whole production process took four years.[11] Brea spent the first year working out "how to make a film from bed" and raising money, then 1.5 years filming, and spent the remaining time editing.[12] Brea used a Skype teleprompter to conduct interviews, and eventually found a way to stream an on-set camera to her computer. Gradually, she built a global team. She was bedridden throughout much of the production of the film, conducting interviews on Skype and directing remotely with producers and crews around the world.[11] The film also contains self-filmed home videos.[13]

"Unrest," initially named "Canary in a Coal Mine," got its first round of funding from a 2013 Kickstarter campaign. Further funding came from various grants and fellowships. Impact Partners invested in the documentary during post-production. The overall production budget reached high six-figures over four years and was financed by a mix of crowdfunding and grants (70%), equity (20%), with a 10% unaccounted for when the documentary was released.[14]


The film received one of the two inaugural Creative Distribution Fellowships of the Sundance Institute. This allowed Brea more freedom around marketing and the distribution of the documentary, rather than having to sell the rights away.[12]

The film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival on January 20.[15][6] To enable homebound with ME/CFS to participate, the premiere included 25 virtual seats.[12] It was screened during the 2017 SXSW Film Festival in March; The Melbourne International Film Festival[16] and the New Zealand International Film Festival in August 2017;[3] Sheffield Doc Fest; CPH:Dox; and Hotdocs.[16] In fall of 2017, the film opened theatrically in the United States and United Kingdom.[14]

The film aired in the United States as part of the Independent Lens series on the Public Broadcasting Service in January 2018.[17][18] It became available on Netflix on January 15, 2018,[19] and available for free on YouTube in May 2023.[20]

Reception and impact[edit]

The film was well-received. Unrest was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best documentary feature,[21] but was not one of the final five nominations.[22] It furthermore won an award for the best documentary feature at the RiverRun International Film Festival and the Nashville Film Festival.[23][16] It was nominated for an Emmy Award on Outstanding Documentary Editing and won the Special Jury Award for Editing at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival,[16][24] and the 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest Illuminate Award.[25]

Critics in particular praised the intimacy of the documentary. The Los Angeles Times called the film "an existential exploration of the meaning of life while battling a crippling chronic illness."[8] The film was described as an engaging watch, despite being filmed mostly in the bedrooms of the featured ME patients.[26] The home footage helped bring out the authenticity around how ME put strains on the marriage of Brae and her husband, and the resilience they displayed in overcoming these strains.[9][27][7]

The advocacy in the documentary was considered effective. Glenn Kenny, writing for RogerEbert.com, describes Brea as "relentless" in documenting the severity of her symptoms, which includes periods of paralysis and hypersensitivity to light.[5] The Los Angeles Times called the film "a stirring call to action".[8] While Unrest does not propose a direct solution for people with ME/CFS, it does showcase hope in the #MillionsMissing protests, which sought greater recognition for the illness.[9]

The documentary was accompanied by a large awareness campaign and reached a wide audience. It may have contributed to boosts in research funding in Canada, the UK, the US and in particular Australia. It gave a boost to the growth of the #MEAction network, and the #MillionsMissing protests. The documentary became accredited for Continuing Medical Education (CME) in the US.[16]


  1. ^ "Unrest". Sundance. Archived from the original on June 29, 2017. Retrieved December 17, 2016.
  2. ^ "Unrest documents lives of ME patients". ParkRecord.com. 17 January 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Jennifer Brea: 'ME is not about fatigue or tiredness'". RNZ. 2017-08-12. Retrieved 2024-03-16.
  4. ^ a b c "Unrest | Filmmaker Documents Struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome | Independent Lens | PBS". Independent Lens. Retrieved 2024-03-17.
  5. ^ a b c Kenny, Glenn (September 22, 2017). "Unrest movie review & film summary (2017)". RogerEbert.com. Retrieved 2024-03-16.
  6. ^ a b Harvey, Dennis (January 24, 2017). "Sundance Film Review: 'Unrest'". Variety. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  7. ^ a b "'Unrest': Film Review - Sundance 2017". The Hollywood Reporter. 23 January 2017.
  8. ^ a b c Walsh, Katie (2017-09-28). "Filmmaker documents crippling autoimmune disease in stirring 'Unrest'". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2017-11-12.
  9. ^ a b c Kohn, Eric (January 27, 2017). "'Unrest' Review: A Personal Look at Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, With Powerful Results — Sundance 2017". IndieWire.
  10. ^ "Interview: Jennifer Brea Talks About Obstacles, Adjustments, and Inspiration". ProHealth.com.
  11. ^ a b c Buder, Emily (January 23, 2017). "Jennifer Brea Filmed Her Sundance Premiere Without Leaving Bed — And it Saved Her Life". No Film School. Retrieved September 28, 2017.
  12. ^ a b c Tiffany, Kaitlyn (2017-09-21). "Jennifer Brea documented her chronic fatigue syndrome on an iPhone so doctors would believe other women". The Verge. Retrieved 2024-07-15.
  13. ^ Vincent, Tom Meek and Allyson Johnson and Sarah G. (2022-03-13). "A Women's History Month trio led by 'Unrest,' with more Mészáros, Poitier, Cage and Travolta". Cambridge Day. Retrieved 2024-03-16.
  14. ^ a b Fuselier, Jess. "Distribution Case Study: Unrest". Sundance Institute. Retrieved 2024-03-11.
  15. ^ "Sundance 2017 Women Directors: Meet Jennifer Brea - Unrest". womenandhollywood.com.
  16. ^ a b c d e Driver, Sahar (2019). Hi5 Impact Case Study: Unrest - Building a global movement to fight for people living with ME (PDF) (Report). DocImpactHi5. Retrieved March 16, 2024.
  17. ^ "Sundance: Medical Mystery Doc 'Unrest' Nabbed by PBS (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. January 31, 2017.
  18. ^ Morfoot, Addie (June 22, 2017). "PBS' Independent Lens Announces Season 16 Slate (EXCLUSIVE)". Variety. Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  19. ^ Brea, Jennifer (January 15, 2018). "The time is here! Unrest is now available on @Netflix!..." Twitter. Retrieved January 18, 2018.
  20. ^ @unrestfilm (May 16, 2023). "Unrest is now available for free, on YouTube. Watch now and share with your friends and family! https://youtube.com/watch?v=XOpyLTyVxco #timeforunrest" (Tweet). Retrieved March 16, 2024 – via Twitter.
  21. ^ Pedersen, Erik (2017-12-08). "Oscars: Documentary Feature Shortlist Cuts Field To 15". Deadline. Retrieved 2017-12-11.
  22. ^ Wilkinson, Alissa (7 February 2018). "Oscar cheat sheet: The 5 nominees for Best Documentary Feature, explained". Vox. Retrieved 10 February 2018.
  23. ^ Loftin, Nate (2022-05-23). "RiverRun International Film Festival - AWARDS". Retrieved 2024-03-16.
  24. ^ Erbland, Eric Kohn,Kate; Kohn, Eric; Erbland, Kate (January 29, 2017). "Sundance 2017 Award Winners: 'I Don't Feel At Home in This World Anymore,' 'Dina' and More Pick Up Grand Jury Prizes".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award For Editing
  25. ^ ""City of Ghosts," "Unrest" take Sheffield Doc/Fest Awards". Retrieved August 15, 2017.
  26. ^ Booth, Kaitlyn (January 23, 2017). "Sundance 2017: 'Unrest' Is An Emotional Look At Human Strength". Bleeding Cool.
  27. ^ Means, Sean P. "Sundance review: 'Unrest'". The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved January 27, 2017.

External links[edit]