Laura CliffordUntil 1991, electrical power in the then-Soviet state of Georgia came free. The citizenry of that communist state, after over 60 years of Soviet rule, expected to be taken care of, power-wise, in perpetuity. But, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and along with it the Russian rule of the USSR. Suddenly, the people of Georgia, particularly in the capital of Tbilisi, found themselves in the undesirable position of having to pay for what they had taken for granted as gratis. A US energy company, AES Corp., stepping into the void, bought the state-run electric company, Telasi, and tried to turn it into a profit making machine. They didn’t count on the people’s unwillingness to pay for power and profit turned to enormous loss in “Power Trip.”
Docu-filmmaker Paul Devlin took his Sony TVR-900 mini-DV camera and a couple of microphones and journeyed to the wilds of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. His college friend Piers Lewis, the general manager of the AES power consolidation effort in the capital of Tbilisi, is the central figure in Devlin’s tale of an international conglomerate brought to its knees by the electricity-hungry population that goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid paying the piper for the power they consume.
Devlin introduces some interesting, often mind-blowing (at least to us capitalists) statistics of life and electricity in Tbilisi as he follows Lewis through his efforts to make the Telasi-AES company a profitable venture. We learn that the per capita income in Georgia is $15 to $75 a month – yes, that is per month – while the average electric bill is $24 per month. Only one in 10 of the AES customers pay their power bills. (Longhaired Lewis vowed that he would not cut his hair until that figure reached 50% paying customers.) AES bought the ailing Telasi company for $35 million but, when they finally gave up on the Georgian society and its people, the global power conglomeration had sunk over $160 million into the concern – with no prospect of ever making a profit.
“Power Trip” is not just about statistics, though. The almost unbelievable facts and figures are interleaved with anecdotes by Piers and others about the ingenuity and lengths the citizens of Tbilisi go through to avoid paying for power. After desperately struggling with this unrelenting battle, Lewis (almost maniacally) relates a story where one of the AES technicians shut down power to the Tbilisi airport as a plane was coming in to land. The long no-pay airport authority came up with the money right away. The glee that Piers Lewis shows over pulling off such a coup is tinged with the desperate measures needed to make even a small profit for AES.
Also telling of the economic disparity in the Georgian capital is the variety of ways the people steal power. Street lights, tram line, hospitals, wherever electricity can be pirated are fair game for plugging in. Some of the rat nests of illegal wires are so dangerous that bodies are often found after being zapped stealing juice. “Power Trip” is a true journey, for the Western eye, to a world that has fallen back to almost medieval ways. Imagine, if you will, what your life would be like if you only had electricity for four or less hours a day – and maybe not even that. Our world, as we know it, would come crashing down. The resilience of the Georgian people to cope with such trials is remarkable.
Paul Devlin does not take sides in “Power Trip.” He states the case of the Georgians and their reasons for pirating power with sympathy and understanding. But, he does not portray the American energy conglom, AES, as a bad guy, either. CEO Dennis Baake is genuinely dedicated to helping the Georgian people but the task is insuperable, despite best efforts. The lack of political intrigue in the documentary permits the practicalities of life in Tbilisi to come to the top. Piers Lewis is an interesting focus for the film, too. I give it a B+.
As the U.S.S.R. transitions from Communism, AES Corporation, the U.S. global power company, buys the former Soviet Republic of Georgia's electricity firm, Telasi. Local manager Piers Lewis must now convince the populace and Tblisi's industries that what was formerly provided by the government is now a commodity which must be paid for. He faces resistance on all fronts and theft from illegal wiring to government commandeering of resources in what has become a gigantic "Power Trip."
Writer/editor/director Paul Devlin takes a maddeningly complex tale and breaks it down into understandable chunks by choosing three guides offering different perspectives on the chaotic events. Lewis, a former classmate of the director's, throws down a gauntlet at the film's beginning, saying that he will not cut his hair until the bill collection rate has increased from 10 to 50 percent. Akaki Gogichaishvili is a young field assistant working for AES who dreamed of being an actress but settled for becoming a Georgian National Dancer. She's the bridge between the power company and the new Georgia emerging from civil war and corruption. Leeka Basilaia is a journalist who offers the perspective of previous Georgian generations, with her own grandmother repeatedly suffering the loss of her precious television when the lights go out.
The American company, which paid $35 million for Telasi and then an additional $60 million to install meters, clearly didn't know what it was up against. Consumer bills averaging $24 US are being sent to families existing on $15-75 monthly wages. Although the company sympathizes with its customers, AES is forced to make the decision to cut off power for lack of payment, something the city of Tblisi's one million occupants have never experienced. The Americans are viewed as occupiers by angry consumers. Leeka speaks of the dehumanizing effect of having her power taken away. AES is also facing the government which vowed to support it, going so far as to shut off airport power as a plane approached for landing in order to get their huge unpaid bill settled! (It was, immediately, proving that monies were indeed available.)
Things continue in a downward spiral when a 2001 summer drought is followed by the National Dispatch Center diverting power away from Tblisi to other non-paying industrial customers. Citizens are found dead in apartment complex power sheds that would make an American building inspector cringe. The overthrow of Eduard Shevardnadze (we see an assassination attempt) puts the country into political turmoil. Corruption reigns - a '60 Minutes' style journalist who procures a tape of police cooperating with kidnappers is murdered (in the film's credit scroll we also learn that AES CFO Nika Lomindadze was assassinated in his apartment). CEO Dennis Bakke arrives in the country to make assurances, but the AES founder is eventually forced to resign. In the end, AES sells Telasi to UES, a Russian state-owned company. Akaki seems youthfully naive when she expresses hope for the future, which is now in the Georgians' own hands.
Devlin's brilliantly edited piece of work (he has won Emmys for editing Olympic Game coverage) is as alternately humorous and suspenseful as a gripping fiction feature. The subject matter may sound dry on the surface, but, within the myriad problems the human race creates for itself, it crackles with an electrical charge. "Power Trip" is a terrific, all-encompassing look at a cultural clash not only between people, but between how people do business and govern themselves.
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