A first-rate documentary which impresses on a number of levels, “Power Trip” provides unique insights into the role played by a major American company in an impoverished, corrupt, almost Third World country, Georgia. Made with deft evenhandedness, Paul Devlin’s accomplished film plays almost like a fictional drama, containing suspense, comedy and some colorful characters. In some territories, theatrical release could prove successful, while television slotting is a must as well as further fest exposure.
In 1999, AES Corp., headquartered in Arlington, Va., and which is the largest owner of power in the world, spent $35 million to acquire Telasi, Georgia’s electricity distribution company, which was formerly nationalized. The Americans couldn’t have predicted what they were in for; Georgia, the former Soviet republic, located in the unstable Caucasus region, is almost a basket case. In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, the country, led by President Edward Shevardnadze, has staggered from one crisis to another, including civil war.
Devlin tells his story from the POV of British-born Piers Lewis, who has lived in Georgia for six years, speaks the language, and, at the start of the film, is strategic project director for AES-Telasi. The first problem the new company faces is that supplies of electricity in the country are a mess, with up to 40% of customers illegally bypassing their meters via homemade wiring. In the Communist era, power was free; now, the user has to pay, and AES-Telasi is determined to improve power supplies and keep shareholders back in America happy. A fortune is spent improving the power lines and metering every customer, but when the company starts sending out bills — averaging $24 per month, in a city where the average wage is as little as $15 per month — something’s got to give. In effect, the customers simply refuse to pay. And when the company begins to cut off power supplies from bad debtors, public unrest grows.
While the wily consumers set about finding ways of obtaining illegal power again, AES-Telasi faces more pressing problems from the government itself. Despite the assurances of the president and his Fuel and Energy Minister, government facilities also refuse to pay for their power. In one revealing scene, AES-Telasi decides to cut off power to Tbilisi’s airport in order to force payment of a staggering debt.
The company is now losing $120,000 per day, and everyone’s getting edgy. Devlin depicts the increasing tensions between the visiting Americans and the government and people, and, by implication, the tensions between the AES CEO, Dennis Baake, and his shareholders. Baake, who has signed photographs of Mother Teresa and Bill Clinton on his office wall, seems genuinely dedicated to dragging Georgia into the modern world, but the difficulties he and his staff face seem almost insuperable.
Almost as an aside, Devlin depicts the crusading work of a trio of Georgian TV journalists who threaten to expose government corruption; when one of the journalists is gunned down in his home, his funeral brings Tbilisi to a halt, though Shevardnadze refuses to accept that the assassination was political. As the end credits unfold, the viewer is informed that, after filming was completed, an AES-Telasi exec (not seen in the film) was also murdered.
Devlin includes interviews with ordinary Georgians, TV commercials for AES-Telasi, Georgian cartoons which mock the Americans’ efforts, and newsreel footage which fleshes out the recent history of the troubled country.
What makes “Power Trip” unusually interesting is the fact that Devlin refuses to take sides. He clearly sympathizes both with the people of Georgia and the horrendous problems they face when their power supply is shut down, and also with the generally good-natured, hard-working and amiable AES-Telasi employees. There isn’t a hint of “ugly American” bashing in the film.
Shot on video, “Power Trip” plays out as a dynamic and incident-packed 85 minutes, offeringinsight into seldom discussed problems concerning the former satellites of the Soviet Union.