Electric Malady: a poignant documentary about electrosensitivity

Following one man’s struggle with a condition that is largely dismissed by medical practitioners, this touching film shines a light on the growing isolation that sufferers often endure.

William Hendeberg under a copper thread-lined blanket in Electric Malady (2022)

In the opening moments of Marie Lidén’s Electric Malady, a man named William Hendeberg describes a night when he was young: walking home from a friend’s house, he stopped to climb a tree and watch the rain fall. “Life is gonna be so fucking great,” he recalls thinking. Little could he have known that, decades later, he would be confined to a cramped cabin in the wilderness, sleeping in a foil-lined bedroom and perennially encased beneath heavy blankets lined with copper thread. Electrosensitivity is a condition whose sufferers exhibit a collection of symptoms that they believe are caused by electromagnetic fields. According to the film, the World Health Organisation estimates that it may affect up to 3% of the global population, but is largely misunderstood, overlooked or dismissed entirely.

The severity of William’s situation, which he generously details for Lidén in this deeply personal film, should provoke at least a better understanding of the troubles faced by people who have, or believe they have, electrosensitivity. Early in his affliction, William was a little freer and filmed himself before his condition significantly worsened. Lidén incorporates some of William’s footage, placing it alongside poignant celluloid inserts captured specifically for the film. Most of Electric Malady is conventional observational documentary in form, though the delicacy and intimacy that Lidén manages to achieve makes it feel anything but rote.

The decision to shoot only some of the film on a hand-cranked Bolex is a curious one and presumably comes down to budget. The celluloid material is evocative, particularly in the moments where it depicts the outside world that William can no longer experience; the woozy nostalgia of film emphasises the fact that it only exists as a memory or dream for him now. The presence of Lidén’s modern digital camera must have been a concern for William; at one point, he asks for it to be turned off in case that helps alleviate his condition, and – as far as we can see – Lidén obliges.

Despite regular visits from his stricken but devoted parents and other friends, William’s sheer isolation is devastating to watch. His parents remain hopeful of miraculous improvement, but William often sinks into such depression that a very different, darker future is implied. That Lidén’s film might shed some light on this issue for others seems to be William’s primary motivation – “I don’t mind if people think I’m exaggerating… if I could just sow a seed…” – but there’s also a ray of hope that sharing the weight of his story might just help William too.

Electric Malady is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.