Paul Devlin’s Power Trip begins as though it’s going to be a simple anti-globalization tract. The first shot is of a mob demanding to know why they have no electricity, which cuts to a then-anonymous Georgian (we find out later that this is an investigative journalist named Leeka Basilaia) observing that “electricity is very much connected with the [sic] hope” and noting that this “is hard to understand for someone living in the civilized world.” The film moves to a montage sequence showing a country in disarray and subtitles explain that in 1999, eight years after the nation of Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union, the American multi-national AES Corporation purchased Telasi, Georgia’s electricity distribution company, and “now the Georgians are depending on AES-Telasi to keep the lights on.”
Soon after this an AES-Telasi Regional Manager named Butch Mederos is quoted as saying, “If you don’t have electricity and you go somewhere that has it, and you flip a switch and the power comes on it’s the most satisfying thing that you can imagine.” Another AES employee, a Strategic Projects Director named Piers Lewis, explains that he was skeptical about Georgia at first but then “he fell in love with the mystery of the place.” This statement is followed by a montage that might have come from a tourist video: rustic-looking peasants, quaint villages, and crumbling churches.
Power Trip at first may seem to be the story of a poor, post-communist, struggling country (or rather, the city of Tbilisi, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia) duped and defrauded by a sinister American corporation and its clueless minions, and indeed, Devlin has suggested in interviews that is the story he set out to tell. However, as the film progresses he begins to warm to the company. The odds against AES succeeding are shown to be so overwhelming that questions emerge about just what potential opportunity they see in the region. Accustomed to life in the Soviet Union where utilities were provided by the government, the people of Georgia have extreme difficulty adjusting to this new system where “everything is for sale”; thus, only about 10 percent of AES-Telasi’s customers pay their bills. Not even the Georgian military pays its power bills. (Wisely, AES decides to hold off cutting a military base’s power until summer, rather than winter, when the bill is long overdue, so that the underfed, well-armed men won’t suffer from lack of heating.)
Corruption in the highest levels of the Georgian government is so rampant that the biggest consumers of power in the Industrial sector, being well-connected politically, can’t be forced to pay at all. And perhaps more important than these economic concerns, it’s actually dangerous to maintain a presence here: the film is dedicated to the memory of the 30 year-old CFO of AES-Telasi Niki Lominadze, who was assassinated in his home.
It turns out that AES’s interest in Georgia isn’t exclusively economic, which is a good thing, because if it were, the situation would be simply hopeless. We meet Michael Scholey, AES-Telasi’s General Manager, who tells Devlin that the company “doesn’t believe that the purpose of a corporation is to profit-maximize.” CEO Dennis Bakke elaborates further, explaining that AES feels an obligation to use its wealth and power to make the world a better place. In this case, AES wants to help bring this underdeveloped part of the world into the 21st century by building a sustainable electricity distribution operation. And if they can make a profit in the process, then so much the better.
Meanwhile, seemingly helpless in the face of such “power” and corruption, the Georgian people are revealed to be a resourceful, and hardy lot. As one Georgian observes, “To be happy in Georgia is to enjoy life even when you’re at the edge of disaster.” We meet people who make an art form of such a philosophy; such as the cosmopolitan academic Zaal Kikodze who moves with ease between an office filled with computers and fax machines (that work only when the power is on, of course) and the self-sustaining farm where he makes his own wine and cheese that keeps him alive when times are hardest. And the people of a Soviet-era planned city that was abandoned in mid-construction after Georgian independence.
These people, resourceful as they may be, are also quite pissed off. They’re savvy in sabotaging AES meters—not least busting a lock, disabling or rewiring a meter, and putting their own locks on the meter box. This community of bleak environs is fearless in its many ways of supplying electricity to its people, including illegally tapping into the power grid using a myriad of ingenious, but dangerous, devices. One shed, unbelievably built entirely of metal, has been so sketchily cobbled together into a power supply center that the AES employee showing it to Devlin won’t even approach it: “If that floor comes alive we’re fucking dead.” The body of an electrocuted Georgian discovered later in the film underscores the high personal cost it sometimes takes to live under such conditions – and the incredible lengths these people will go to in order to fend off the darkness. (Indeed, the psychological impact of living in prolonged darkness – never mind the power needed to refrigerate food or heat water for a bath – but the depressive effect literal darkness has upon the Georgian people, is made painfully clear.)
In the end, Power Trip turns out to be a thoughtful, inquisitive consideration of American-owned AES-Telasi’s relationship with Georgia. This is an earnest attempt to look at the issue of globalization from a variety of angles. It’s not clear in the film whether the Georgian people would be better off with or without AES Corporation’s involvement. The company was only able to acquire electricity distribution rights in the first place because the Georgian government could not provide safe, consistent power to its people. Someone says that if AES-Telasi fails, then so will Georgia, a sentiment supported by a map showing the country’s proximity to war-torn Chechnya and a montage of the assassinations and military conflicts that have been de rigueur since its independence. This is a land on the brink of chaos, and AES-Telasi is one of the few things holding anarchy at bay. Seemingly. Ultimately, the American-owned AES-Telasi does fail: it is bought out by a Russian company
But it can’t be denied that the American company’s desperate efforts to stay alive in this market by increasing bill collection percentages borders on ruthlessness. AES-Telasi’s methods do causing suffering. At one point, the story is told about a decision to cut power to an airport that is behind on paying its bills—even as a plane is coming in for a landing. And disconnecting entire towns, cities, and regions in one fell swoop becomes standard operating procedure as AES struggles to collect a decade’s worth of unpaid bills.
Ultimately, the film probably does too little to challenge the rosy picture that AES Corporation paints of itself. We have little sense of just how big a company it is, or how Telasi fits into AES’ big picture. And if Village Voice film critic Ward Harkavy’s accusation that the company “churned up a cash flow of billions of dollars from hapless targets of privatization like Georgia” is true, then the film is disingenuous when its suggests that financially, Georgia was a losing proposition for the company.
But this is a minor failure when compared to the film’s many significant successes. The subject of globalization is all too often reduced to slogans on protestors’ signs or corporate catch phrases. Power Trip is a challenge to this kind of simplification. It provides a vivid depiction of just how high the stakes are for those living in a post-communist country, and capitalist interests in such environs; it’s a journey into the heart of this complicated issue. And for anyone genuinely interested in trying to understand the subject, this is a trip worth taking. The DVD comes packaged with an impressive array of extras including the full-length version of a Georgian cartoon that’s excerpted in the film, a selection of amusing AES-Telasi public service announcements (“Think this is your brain on drugs”), and a worthwhile selection of deleted scenes.