'Unrest' Review

Monday, 17 September 2018

“Sickness doesn’t terrify me and death doesn’t terrify me. What terrifies me is that you can disappear because someone’s telling the wrong story about you”. Each time director Jennifer Brea speaks, her words are meticulously chosen, steely and unwavering, spoken softly but without apology—asking us to lean in close and listen carefully. In her 2017 film Unrest she takes the camera into her own hands to film her struggle with the sorely misunderstood Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, making sure to tell her story right. I know this, because it’s my story too.

Aged eighteen and starry-eyed, I set off for university, salivating at the thought of instant noodles and all-nighters, itching to experience all the magical and mundane things I’d seen students do on screen. But my body had other ideas. My legs gave in first, then my arms, and then my head became wrapped in a dizzying, nauseous haze. When my speech became too slurred to express anything, I could be myself only in my imagination.

“I stayed sane because I can do lots of things with my mind” says Jessica, one of Brea’s subjects; a young woman who has been acutely ill with CFS since the age of fifteen. From her dark bedroom she fantasises of scuba diving in distant Australia. In a moving, inventive sequence, P.O.V footage from the aquamarine waters of a colourful coral reef is synced with Jessica’s imagined sensory impressions (“my body moving but no sound”). Usually, documentaries capture people as and where they are, not as or where they’d like to be; they hold a mirror to our day-jobs, not our daydreams. But who is to say that the places we go with our minds are any less real than those we go with our feet? 

“It’s mental” says Jessica, when her feet touch the floor for the first time in eight years. She says this with the impassioned zeal of a sixteen-year-old convinced he’s just spotted Christ in the crowd at Reading Festival—through watery eyes, you have to laugh.

Unrest is a revelation. It shines light on an invisible community, but transcends its “activist” label by practising the compassion it preaches. Brea is not a director who barks orders; she speaks to her noise-sensitive subjects in whispers. But she need not shout to say that if our beds are our battlefields, then that’s a fair place to start a revolution.

When I left the cinema and got carried into the technicolour hustle and drum of Shaftesbury Avenue, the sky —now nearly night— was darker but my legs, somehow, felt a little lighter. I couldn’t walk more than a hundred metres, but I swear, I might have run. 

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