EIFF ’22: ‘Electric Malady’ Poignantly Captures Disbelieved Health Issues

Image courtesy of Aconite

In a world designed to stigmatize disability and force the chronically ill into work, director Marie Lidén sheds light on a pernicious and misunderstood health issue through the isolated life of one man. William Hendeberg lives alone in the middle of the Norwegian forest. His parents deliver groceries. He often stays in a dark room, covered by a special blanket with copper wires interwoven into the fabric. He claims to suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), a medically disputed syndrome still being explored by the WHO and not formally recognized.

Lidén has a personal connection to the syndrome; her mother also suffered from EHS. It is feared that – as 3G, 4G, and now 5G networks expand in today’s increasingly modernized and connected world – more people susceptible to EHS will begin to suffer. Anecdotal evidence suggests cases are rising and are as high as 3% of the population, though the international scientific community has not yet agreed on the causes or severity. 

Hendeberg cannot get formal support for his condition, and the things he cannot do are explored in excruciating detail. The documentary captures everyday routines, spotlighting the challenges faced with activities those without EHS take for granted. Sometimes the challenges are clumsy but negotiable, such as navigating the house under his blanket; sometimes, the barriers are physical and painful, as he drives away from his cabin, knowing any moment he will be hit with a wall of agony. Driving through a city in the only section shot away from Hendeberg’s forest abode, he describes his love of being around people and how this led to seeking out situations that debilitated him – including a disorientating experience in police custody after he collapsed in the city centre. By this point, even without the narration, the audience knows what an impossibility this life would be for him and understands the heartbreak. 

Much of the footage was captured with hand-cranked cameras shooting 16mm film, and sound recording was completed with non-transmitting microphones, keeping discomfort to a minimum. To those who can co-exist with electromagnetic fields, the details are discomfiting. Linden never presses for a societal solution, but the sensitive exploration captures the limitations of a society built around technology and instant communication. 

Electric Malady is made with sensitivity and total belief in EHS. Still, it cannot help veering towards exploitation – especially when the camera causes Hendeberg further distress, emotional and physical (while working with the lowest tech possible, Hendeberg occasionally makes reference to the discomfort of the camera coming closer and relief when it moves away). The film and EHS sufferers are thus caught in a Catch-22, unable to explain the agony without the exposure that would further exacerbate it. One hopes the suffering is not in vain. 

By the documentary’s end, Hendeberg’s life still feels frozen in time. He acknowledges that his parents and extended family cannot continue to support him forever, but huge question marks still float about his subsistence and existence. His parents give no sign of slowing their support, their unconditional presence the only light in a bleak picture. No questions are answered, and no solution is presented. Electric Malady is one of the year’s most thought-provoking and innovative documentaries; one hopes it helps Hendeberg and his fellow sufferers, but one does not know how. 

Electric Malady had its Scottish premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

by Carmen Paddock

Carmen is a Pennsylvanian transplant to Glasgow who writes about film, television, and opera. A lover of maximalism and musicals, much of her writing focuses on cross-media adaptation. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ludwig, Cabaret, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Moulin Rouge!. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie

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