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The Netflix doc is an unflinching look at a disease we’re still understanding.
Imagine living a life full of excitement and curiosity, free to do what you please, that one day comes to a crashing halt. Suddenly you are bedridden, unable to do anything besides watch the world go by. It’s like being tied down by restraints only you can see. To outsiders, it looks like you’re just lazy. You go through a battery of exams and receive a shoulder shrug instead of a treatment. Their lives, as well as their family’s, are turned upside down. That is what the people who suffer from myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome, go through. It’s the subject of Jennifer Brea’s stirring documentary Unrest, now available on Netflix.
Unrest is an unflinching look at a disease that overwhelms both the stricken and the medical community. Brea gives viewers a first-person look at the harsh realities of CFS. It’s frustrating and isolating to witness, but it’s vitally informative to witness. One of Brea’s main goals is to help fight the stigma that people suffering from CFS aren’t really sick. Her perspective is invaluable. She shows herself at some of her lowest points, laying on the ground and crying, unable to pick herself up. It’s harrowing. But it’s not a play for pity.
“I feel like a broken battery stuck at 10 percent,” Brea says at one point, and it’s a strong summation of the point she’s making. While the medical community has struggled to come up with a way to fight CFS, another key part of the battle is public awareness. News footage reveals people comparing something very real to something that generates ridicule like affluenza. As with many cognitive disorders, the lack of visible symptoms is something of a roadblock to empathy and understanding.
As Brea meets other people with CFS and learns their stories, she finds something that has eluded her: hope. While the struggle to find a cure has no end in sight, people are finding ways to make the best of their situation. Through activism, or FaceTime calls to stay involved, or reckoning with the damage the disease can wreak on a family, the documentary finds a hopeful note to end on.
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Eddie Strait is a member of the Austin Film Critic Association. His reviews focus primarily on streaming entertainment, with an emphasis on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, and other on-demand services.