Electric Malady: Review. By Joe Muldoon.
Marie Lidén’s BAFTA-nominated documentary Electric Malady is a story of love and loneliness. William is a young man who, due to an apparent extreme sensitivity to electrical radiation (‘electrosensitivity’), has lived isolated in rural Sweden for a decade. Once a master’s degree student and aspiring musician, he now spends his time in his remote country house with a copper-lined blanket over his head, avoiding most forms of technology where possible.
Weaving between interviews with William’s parents and with the man himself, we gradually develop a clearer picture of William’s condition, and how it affects both him and those around him. Retelling her first memory of the condition manifesting itself, his mother describes the young man having dizzily staggered around as if drunk. He now resorts to sleeping in a foil-covered room with the aforementioned blanket over his head, in an attempt to stave off any headaches or nausea caused by the radiation.
‘To isolate your son like that is sickening’, his father says despairingly. William’s parents visit him twice a week in order to bring supplies and to help him around the house, though they yearn for the day he can hopefully finally join them in the outside world. Kind visitors and wellwishers occasionally accompany them, many of whom have maintained a written correspondence with William. A cruel irony lurks beneath, that the interconnectivity of our digital world has caused such extreme isolation for this individual.
Rather striking is the juxtaposition between the beautiful roaming shots of the Swedish countryside and the relative misery found within his country house. Suffering slightly is the pacing of the film; though not always a problem with documentaries (Varda’s observational style has become a distinctive marker of the beloved filmmaker), the repetitive and sometimes vague nature of Lidén’s piece makes it feel longer than it actually is. Electric Malady’s strength lies within the moving conversations shared between William and his family, often captured wonderfully by a hand-cranked Bolex camera.
Electrosensitivity, or electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), is not currently considered to have any scientific basis, and as such is not a recognised medical condition. The documentary presents the condition in a very matter-of-factly fashion, predominantly engaging with those who believe in its existence, or are at least open to it. Quite possible is that William is suffering from a nocebo effect. In the epilogue, the film makes very strong claims that ‘in Sweden, more than 300,000 people experience symptoms from microwave radiation’, and that ‘according to statistics from the World Health Organisation, it is estimated that worldwide, between 1.5% to 3% of the population suffer from Electrosensitivity’.
The objective presentation of the claims made throughout will likely put many off, but some slack should be given to those involved, because it is the story of one family’s strife, rather than a scientific documentary per se. Some hope is offered as it ends, with William gradually increasing his time outside, saying that “the future is brighter than it is dark”. Regardless of its grounding in scientific fact or otherwise, Electric Malady is a deeply compassionate and sympathetic piece of documentary filmmaking, and a touching display of familial love and dedication.
By Joe Muldoon.
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