Realscreen’s Trailblazers: Jennifer Brea on the power of perception

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. ...
January 25, 2018

Last year proved to be a rollercoaster ride in many ways, and the non-fiction/unscripted content industry has certainly experienced its share of peaks and valleys over the last 12 months. With Trailblazers, realscreen salutes those behind some of the high points, profiling individuals and companies that — through innovative and brave approaches to their work — have been behind some of the more inspiring projects to emerge in 2017.

We continue our look at 2017′s Trailblazers with a profile of Jennifer Brea below. Profiles of our other Trailblazers are rolling out throughout the week.

There’s a scene early on in Jennifer Brea’s Unrest that shows the first-time director attempting to pull herself up a flight of stairs, unable to muster the strength to crawl, let alone stand. Her husband, who is filming Brea’s ordeal, asks if he can help. Brea vehemently refuses.

It’s one of the instances in the doc when Brea turns the camera on herself to showcase the struggles of the millions suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.

“Part of the problem is you can only perceive what you can see and directly experience — at the doctor’s office, at one particular moment, I may look fine, but they aren’t seeing me when I’m at home,” she says. “I realized that even though people had written books and articles about this condition, it had to be visual and experiential in order to convey something authentic about my experience.”

The feature-length doc, which began as Brea’s personal diary, has gained momentum throughout the past year, garnering international praise for its refusal to shy away from the intimate and painful moments of those affected by myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME).

When the doc first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, programmer Caroline Libresco introduced it as “a film in which picking up the camera is an act of power.” It went on to win the Special Jury Prize for Documentary Editing there, along with picking up awards at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the RiverRun International Film Festival, the Indie Street Film Festival and the Cinema Eye Honors Awards. Most recently, it made the shortlist for the 2018 Academy Awards Documentary Features category.

“What happened to me is not isolated and it’s not rare — it’s part of the story of millions of people who have been marginalized for decades.”

You’ve said that making this doc ignited a love of filmmaking for you — how are you hoping to pursue this passion in the future?

Getting sick like this has been the most challenging and horrible experience of my life, but at the same time, without it I don’t think I ever would have discovered that I am a filmmaker. It was in losing everything and losing the ability to read and write that I was forced to find this other mode of expression, so I’m quite grateful for that. I do want to keep making more films, and I’m interested in both fiction and non-fiction. There’s something really eye opening about falling down this rabbit hole — it makes you wonder what are the other stories out there that no one knows about and are not being told. Intimate and humanist storytelling is one of the greatest tools we have to shift people’s opinions and perspectives.

Tell us about the “virtual screenings” you used for the film, and why they were important to you.

I’m really passionate about exhibition. Although films are available in so many ways, films like Unrest are most powerful when viewed with others and become a place for people to connect. That isn’t an experience you can necessarily have while watching a film on your laptop at home. I really wanted to create an opportunity for people who were homebound with ME or other disabilities to have social and theatrical experiences, even if they couldn’t get to a theater. We also used video conferencing to do post-screening Q&As and discussions. That was profound, because for many viewers, they were able to see and interact with other patients for the very first time.

What did it mean to you for Unrest to be shortlisted for the Academy Awards?

It’s definitely been a thrill. Everything has been improbable from the beginning. I remember telling my husband, Omar, that I wanted to make a film, even though I’d never done one before. From the earliest days, I wanted to do something to change the world, but I never thought about getting this far. It was about telling a story and doing everything we could to get people to listen. So, it’s just been remarkable that it’s resonating with people, and I feel really proud.

There’s so much further to go when it comes to people with disabilities telling their own stories. It’s not something people are thinking of. Being part of this community, you realize there are probably a whole lot of stories we’re not hearing about because of this question of who gets to be a storyteller. There’s a lot of work to be done about how to make filmmaking more accessible, but I hope the shortlist success will help incorporate disability into the other conversations about diversity.

  • Our “Trailblazers” feature first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of realscreen magazine, which is out now. Not a subscriber? Click here for more information.
About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.