Director Marie Lidén’s film Electric Malady has just opened in UK cinemas and it’s a film which allows the viewer into the shrunken world of reluctant recluse William who is suffering from the condition electrosensitivity. The majority of us are surrounded by electronic devices and are constantly being bombarded by signals and radiation from 3G to 5G, radio waves, phone towers and electricity power lines. For most of us this is not a problem, but for electrosensitives like William his life has become a living nightmare; one that has meant this former master’s student and aspiring musician has moved away from city life into a remote cabin in the Swedish wilderness.
Marie Lidén has given us an empathic view of William’s life, this wraith-like figure draped in copper-lined fabric, mostly confined to his foil-covered room. The film cuts between William’s own early videos and Lidén’s video and hand-cranked Bolex footage which, when it is just us and William, remains closely framed on him thus reinforcing the sense of isolation and imprisonment. This is juxtaposed with shots moving around his house, from behind the fabric and of the surrounding area where filters are used to add the shimmer of the invisible radiation that surrounds us all. Lidén says:
“In many cases these people’s stories are marginalised, because they cannot communicate the way we do through Internet or even using phones. I’m also very aware of the boundaries exposed within the film, the questions raised about the differences between mental and physical symptoms, how we apply rules of diagnosis.”
William’s struggle might be balanced on a knife-edge between (literal) dark and the distant light of a pain-free future, but it’s his parents who definitely tip the scales toward the positive. His Father built his first Faraday cage and both parents regularly make the long drive to visit him. Their unwavering optimism and love in the face of their son’s suffering is deeply moving, especially the scenes at Christmas and William’s birthday. William’s love of music is also undiminished, and he regularly plays CDs (having to cover his player in the process) and says of music “it shakes your soul so you feel alive”.
The subject of electrosensitivity is a contentious one with most medical institutions sceptical of its veracity and suggesting that this is a psychological issue, not physical. The electrosensitivity society talks of “between 1% and 5% of the population in developed countries (who) may have severe symptoms and be debilitated when they are exposed to electrosmog”, the UK NHS website doesn’t even feature it and where it is mentioned on the GOV.UK site it adds the caveat “The use of the term ES in this review does not imply the acceptance of a causal relationship between symptoms and attributed exposure”. But I think anyone watching this film would be hard pressed to believe that William’s fragile mental health is anything but the result, not the cause, of his distress. Whether you come away from seeing Electric Malady sceptical or not, Marie Lidén helps us connect to William despite his being hidden from our view for large parts of the film. When his face is shown – through footage from his younger days, or in the present – it has an incredible impact.
Electric Malady is no forensic exploration of the science or psychology, it presents a bitter-sweet story of issues that Lidén suggests “straddle definition, where mainstream society wants to draw neat lines between the conscious and un-conscious, the psychological and the physiological, the real experience of people can be much more complex. I believe we have to explore these boundaries and continually challenge them, to ensure we do give a voice to the marginalised.” Marie Lidén has done this so well and, like all good documentary film makers, draws you into a world you knew little or nothing about with great compassion, meaning you are in thrall to the story from the beginning.
Electric Malady is distributed by Conic and in cinemas from 3rd March. Check your local cinema listings for times. It will be available to stream from 3 April.
Being predominantly a music site I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music provided by Glasgow-based musician John Lemke with tracks taken from his Thawlines album.
You can learn more about electrosensitivity via the electrosensitivity society
Review by Paul F Cook