In the Swedish wilderness, during the test shoot for Electric Malady, director Marie Lidén was confronted with a major filmmaking and ethical obstacle. Testing out various cameras and sound equipment around her documentary subject, William, only distressed him as he suffers from a severe case of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a condition where electromagnetic fields trigger acute, painful symptoms. “It’s a really strange feeling, and I guess added responsibility, when you’re harming your character by physically being in their space with the equipment,” Lidén says.
It seemed like an insurmountable hurdle, but both subject and filmmaker were determined to find a compromise. The potential reward was too important: convince audiences of the seriousness of a condition that has not been proven to exist, and more often than not is treated with disbelief and mockery. “We talk about suicide a few times in the film,” Lidén says. “It’s a thing for electrosensitives. It’s very isolating. And not being believed, or even being ridiculed… It has an effect.”
Shooting for over seven years, Lidén and her cinematographer Michael Sharrington would visit the isolated cottage William lives in with a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera and non-transmitting microphones. “Also, we were able to use a small kind of DSLR camera,” Lidén says. “And Michael was like, ‘Okay, yeah, but we can add a monitor, we can do this.’ I was like, ‘No. We can’t add anything. This is as little as possible.’ But even so, being there in the space of him filming for a day would really affect him. So he would have to recover like a whole day afterward, which had to be kind of included in the planning.”
Early in the film, you can hear Lidén off-camera ask William questions, his exhausted, slightly terse Swedish replies hinting at how much of a genuine struggle it is to amend his strict routine. Did the filmmaker ever feel like an intrusion? “No, because I knew that he really wanted to do a story,” she says. “It was not an intrusion, but it was definitely being aware of, ‘Okay, we need to adapt.’ But I guess you always have to do that when you go into someone else’s life.”
Simply changing “ordinary” behavior to accommodate the disabled is an important way to provide them with equal access to proper care. But for people like William, electrosensitivity still not being recognized as a genuine affliction serves as an additional barrier.
Still, watching William slowly maneuver his home dressed head to toe in blankets, somewhat resembling a ghostly jellyfish, it’s impossible to ignore that electrosensitives live every day with constant, debilitating pain. It wasn’t something Lidén discovered over the film’s 10-year development process, but rather from childhood; her mother suffered from the condition.
“From the beginning, it was going to have my mother’s story in it, and my own voice was going to be thread through it. We also explored other characters, like a teenager in the UK and a child in Canada. But then, over the years, I just felt with William and his family—their story just grew and grew. And then in the actual editing room, we decided that there’s not enough space for anyone else.”
But even though she always wanted her film to take the shape it eventually did, Lidén wasn’t initially committed to centering William. “My experience was obviously from a child’s perspective, so I knew very early that I wanted to film a family, like, experience the illness. But [that’s] very, very hard to find, especially when you’re working with a subject that’s so controversial and people don’t really believe it’s true.
“From the beginning, I was doing a lot of research, I interviewed loads of scientists. But then I felt that it didn’t actually matter. William’s a very extreme case, and I was actually quite worried about this in the beginning. The first time I went to see him, I thought, ‘No, I don’t think he can be a character,’ because electrosensitives are already really worried about how they’re being portrayed. And then I thought using someone whose condition looks so serious is gonna be detrimental to their struggle. But after spending about half an hour with William, your eyes just stopped seeing the blankets and I saw this really great guy. He’s really intelligent. He’s really just, in his own words, normal.”
It was not an intrusion, but it was definitely being aware of, ‘Okay, we need to adapt.’ But I guess you always have to do that when you go into someone else’s life.
A lot of the film’s visual language mimics this normalcy; the footage in William’s home has a muted, natural look, where William’s mass of blankets can sometimes blend in with the surroundings. This was partially done for practical reasons. “When we shot, we couldn’t use any lights,” Lidén says. “So we were trying to bounce, like, mirror lights from the outside.”
Lidén was keen to change up the look elsewhere, a choice made easier by the revelation of William’s home movies from the beginning of his illness. “It was just, I think, the second time I was there. He just all of a sudden came up with, ‘Oh yeah, but I have all this footage from when I started getting ill.’ And I was like, ‘Yes, amazing!’” It’s here brightness seeps onto the screen, as William’s footage is overexposed and corrected to show unnatural colors. “There was definitely a decision of contrasting these two,” Lidén says.
“Being in the space with William is very claustrophobic, and we knew that there had to be a balance of opening and closing. Not just to understand what his world is now compared to what it used to be, but also as a viewer—you just start feeling really uncomfortable. He talks a lot about colors and how he spent so much time in darkness, [so] colors become this thing… We really wanted to use that in the visual language as well.”
Despite having a background in animation, Lidén doesn’t use easy, flashy methods of visualizing William’s condition. Instead, his interiority is telegraphed abstractly. Shots of snow flurry or a wave of blackbirds (Lidén’s favorite in the film) sometimes fill the expanse of sky, just like the electrical signals that plague William. “We decided to do that more in the sound design,” Lidén adds. “Sometimes through [William’s] development we moved up the crack-crackle of electricity, but it’s very discreet.”
Technical prowess aside, Lidén trained her eye on the beating heart of the story: the support network surrounding William. Visits from a priest, psychologist, and herbalist show external help for his condition, but his loving parents are a crucial anchor for William ever recovering.
Both William and his parents confess to the camera what they haven’t told each other, and it’s deeply affecting watching them unwaveringly adapt for William’s comfort. “I just thought, this family is amazing because of how supportive they are and how much love there is in that family, and how much they laugh and have fun,” Lidén says. “And obviously there’s so much sadness within the family, but they just keep the spirit up. And I think that’s the reason why they’ve been able to survive for so long, because he has that basic support and love from his family, which not all people have—especially [those] with electrosensitivity because a lot of them aren’t believed by their own families.”
Watching the film, it’s clear that having a tightly focused perspective on one family doesn’t rob Electric Malady of any of its broad empathetic power. “It is about invisible illnesses,” Lidén says. “There are so many of these illnesses that are very hard to be diagnosed and understood, and that people are just fighting by themselves.”