A Swedish family settles down for Christmas dinner: Mumma, Puppa and their son William, 40. William’s head and upper body are swathed in layer upon layer of a muslin-like fabric, completely covering his head and muffling his voice. The fabric is woven with copper wires and designed to block out electromagnetic waves, because William suffers from electrosensitivity. Electrical radiation from everyday objects and signals from mobile phones cause him physical pain and nervous exhaustion, like he’s plugged into the invisible grid that’s all around us in the modern world. Problem is, electrosensitivity is not officially recognised as a health condition, leaving sufferers like William in a horrible limbo: while their symptoms are real, the cause of them is ascribed to mental illness or psychosomatic anxiety.
Electric Malady is a sometimes touching, often frustrating documentary – and not just because of William’s situation. Like many patients with chronic conditions, William is both passive and selfish, his parents and sister both doting and out of ideas. But the questions it raises – about our understanding of what illness even is and how we collectively respond to people who don’t fit in with the normative triage of national health services – have resonance way beyond William’s particular case. Okay, so he gets to live in a sweet little wooden house in an idyllic Scandinavian forest, and you do wonder what might have become of William had he been, say, an immigrant in the shit end of Stockholm, but there’s no doubt that his condition, whether ‘real’ or not, has destroyed his life and that of his family. Never mind trying to have your birthday party dressed as a bundle of washing, William has previously been forcibly removed from his home by the police and been sectioned without his family’s consent, simply for not being able to function like other people.
As a meditation on the nature of illness, it’s compassionate and revealing
There’s no doubt that Electric Malady fails to get to grips with William’s condition. There’s a stat from the WHO quoted at the end, but no other expert analysis. To be fair, though, it’s not really that kind of doc. If you see it as a meditation on the nature of illness and how it shapes identity, it’s compassionate and revealing. If you’re a Brit and you see it in the context of a country that now struggles to treat patients having heart attacks, it’s positively chilling.
In UK cinemas Mar 3