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Interview with director Marie Lidén on Electric Malady



Thank you so much for speaking to us today. Electric Malady is such a fantastically made, hugely poignant documentary. What was the creative process like making the film? What brought you to making it about William [main character in Electric Malady]?

I grew up with a mother who had electrosensitivity and when I started making Electric Malady, I was getting to the age that she was when she got ill. She is fine now and recovered. I wondered if it might be genetic, and I knew I wanted to make a film about a child’s perspective of looking at an illness like this, of trying to understand something that isn’t really believed.

I put an advert in a Swedish newspaper that goes out to people with electrosensitivity. The response was overwhelming, with people getting in touch from over the world, not just from Sweden. One of the calls was from William’s dad, so I went to see them.

I was worried about using William as a character at first, because of how extreme he looks. The electrosensitivity community is already so worried about how people feel about them. They don’t want to leave any chance that people won’t believe them, but the more time I spent with William, his family, and his way of thinking, made me fall in love with them. Being in his world was extraordinary.

What was it like spending time with William and his family? It’s an incredibly hard situation, but he also has a very positive outlook on life.

It was really hard. It is a very desperate situation, and it is very claustrophobic in there with William. It was only my cinematographer and I in there with him, crammed into that tiny space. We had to make so many compromises and testing with equipment, because of his illness.

We started with a hand-cranked 16mm Bolex camera then realised we could also use a small DSLR camera. We used long lenses shooting from far away, with audio recording equipment kept outside his cabin. There were a lot of challenges and compromises, which fed into our creative process and gave the film the specific look that it has.

It was an extreme experience. I was sometimes so upset and worried because the film gets very dark. I had to seek help about how to deal with a situation like this, about how to speak to someone who is potentially going to commit suicide. What does that say about you as a filmmaker? Am I just making a film here about someone who might end their life? There were so many difficult questions to deal with.

It wasn’t until the middle of our editing process that we decided there wasn’t room for other people in the documentary. William and his family started taking up more space. Before that, I was using my own story, my mother’s story, a child we filmed in Canada, and another teenager in Sweden.

Electric Malady could have been an investigative documentary, but instead it is a very personal one, focussed on just one man and his family. What were your reasons behind this choice?

We could have gone in a more science-focussed direction, but I don’t think it would have been great to do that. My experience with this condition is personal, from growing up with it. Plus, I’m not a scientist!

Obviously, I did so much research. One side says electrosensitivity is completely made up, and the other says that a huge amount of people are suffering from it. It is very hard to navigate. Even the funding process was extremely hard because we were pushed in so many directions. People were saying it had to be a scientific film, or that no one would relate to a person when you can’t see his face. We interviewed several scientists, but it didn’t feel right. We ended up focussing on William.

I think that worked best. It is very personal, but it’s also a widely experienced story he is telling.

His case is very interesting, because there were three librarians who in the space of three months got ill, which we touch on in the film. William was working in this library, as was his girlfriend, and they installed a hearing loop aid system. It was placed temporarily underneath the desk where the librarians worked. One month later, his girlfriend got ill, and William took over her shifts. He got ill after a month, and then the third librarian they hired also got ill. They had to leave society.

I tried to get these two women to speak, but they were both so worried about how it would reflect on their children if they went publicly saying there were electrosensitive. There is so much shame and stigma attached to the illness.

What future do you think electrosensitivity has as an illness? The documentary is quite open-ended but does note that the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises it.

In Sweden, it is not looking great. There is a lot of resistance. When you talk about it, you get shut down immediately. In the UK, it’s different. There is a lot more openness about it, with a lot of court cases winning. I’m working with a doctor who aids people with electrosensitivity in the UK and she sees it moving in a positive direction. I was mainly focussed on Sweden, as that’s where William is. More people have electrosensitivity now; not as extreme as William, but they sleep better when Wi-Fi is off or they have a headache or tingles when they speak on their phone too much. That level of electrosensitivity is becoming more and more common.

I’ve been asked to do more films about electrosensitivity by the community, but I don’t think I can do that again. Electric Malady took 10 years, with filming for 7 of those years. It was so tough.

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