Filmmaker Paul Devlin’s richly detailed, cautionary film Power Trip makes the point that electricity is a vulnerable commodity that we may be taking far too much for granted. His nearly 90-minute documentary takes us deep inside the attempt of a multinational corporation to supply Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, with enough electrical power to satisfy the needs of its more than one million inhabitants. It’s a brisk tour of human resilience, culture clash and corporate values in which the loss of heating and lighting is equated to a humiliating slap in the face and in which dreams of a brighter future refer to both tightly intertwined mental and physical conditions.
California’s rolling electrical blackouts and brownouts pale in comparison to the energy crunch that buffeted Georgia after its declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. As the Soviet Union dissolved, Georgia became a hotbed of bribery, corruption, secessionist conflicts, civil wars and economic devastation. Amid the chaos, the nascent country, best known as the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, struggled to keep its electrical power—which was provided for free under Communist rule—humming.
Into this scenario in 1999 strode the U.S.-based Applied Energy Services Corp. (AES), a huge, independent “global power company,” with plans to privatize and charge for electricity. AES absorbed the state-operated utility network Telasi into a new capitalist venture called AES-Telasi and began the long, painful process of becoming proficient and profitable.
Devlin was invited by former University of Michigan classmate and AES project manager Piers Lewis to chronicle the task of modernizing Tbilisi’s archaic power infrastructure and distribution system. Working mostly alone, with a single Sony TRV-900 mini-DV camera, a wireless microphone and a shotgun mic, Devlin made Lewis the focal point of an evolving story in which Georgia teeters on the brink of anarchy and becomes, at times, a nation literally unplugged.
The most stunning element of Power Trip is the relentless motivation, ingenuity and energy of the Georgian people. When faced with the lack of power, they actually rewire their own city. Electrical lines sprout from clotted transformer connections to crisscross vacant lots, external building walls and roads. About 40 percent of the people illegally tap into power lines, and only 10 percent pay their initial AES-Telasi bills. And when AES installs $60 million worth of new meters to build a clearly defined relationship with its clients, many Georgians develop ways to circumvent them, too.
The film is divided into sections bearing such subtitles as “Disconnection,” “Supply,” “Transition” and “Theft.” It includes a semi-running account of progress from Lewis, who seems to love Georgian culture nearly as much as his job and refuses to cut his hair until the user-payment rate reaches 50 percent. Devlin adds some historical references to Georgia’s oft-plundered past. AES officials, real-estate agents, journalists and professors are interviewed as the AES mission “to serve the world with safe and clean electricity” begins costing the company losses of $120,000 per day. All this is complemented by contemporary and traditional Georgian music; public-service TV announcements; scenes of the local architecture, gathering places and surrounding landscapes; and snippets from a provocative Georgian cartoon series.
The residents of Tbilisi are interesting to watch here as they react while being forced to undergo a quick change in reality, facing high unemployment and recoiling from monthly utility bills of $24—while their average monthly incomes are $15 to $75. One man warns: “Horrible Germany made us hate our country. America will do the same. They are conquering us little by little.” Another reacts as investors and institutions blame each other for the country’s power crisis as electricity is siphoned from even paying customers to feed big business: “It’s better to not get electricity at all. At least we get used to it.”
An elderly gentleman delivers the film’s real kicker when he is rebuffed by AES officials after he asks for monetary relief from his monthly bill because all three inhabitants of his home are handicapped. “May God help you the way you help me,” he says.
And, in this case, that is certainly not a good thing.