Power to the People
Shot primarily on digital video, Power Trip takes for its unlikely subject the Virginia-based multi-national energy corporation AMS, in particular, its quixotic attempt to turn a profit on its purchase of Telasi, the former Soviet republic of Georgia’s electric utility.
Surprisingly, Paul Devlin’s film is not intellectual castor oil; instead, it’s a multi-cultural muddle worthy of an E.M. Forster novel, told with the same attention to detail and moral ambiguity. Its balanced, provocative look at this test case in globalization, combined with deep sympathy evoked for those on all sides, proves irresistibly compelling.
The drama is granted stunning backdrop in Tblisi, Georgia’s capital, especially in contrasts between ornate, terraced buildings nestled in the Causcases and the orphaned Soviet-era housing complexes. One fascinating sequence tours such a project, a massive unintegrated outpost that went unfinished after the Soviets pulled out. The handheld camera suggests tenants’ refugee-like existence, navigating amongst a tangle of jury-rigged and extremely dangerous high voltage wires interwoven like a spider web to provide bootleg electricity to those apartments deemed inhabitable. Such images powerfully convey not only the plight of abandoned communities, but the ingenuity born of desperation, a grass roots disobedience that makes petty criminality seem a last-ditch mode of political action.
Considering their hardships and their pluck, it’s no surprise that the Georgian citizens here earn our sympathy, even when they steal and complain, riot and hassle drivers-by. Lika Basilaia, a Georgian journalist featured in the film, remarks, “Electricity is very much connected with the hope in human nature,” a comment that suggests an equivalence between the film’s images of everyday perseverance—the locals making cheese and wine, performing traditional dances, telling stories, and sharing local lore—and attempts to procure power for free. AMS expected locals to pay $24 a month for something that had once been a right guaranteed by the government. Since the average Georgian currently earns only between $15 and $75 a month, the charge seems particularly outrageous.
At the same time, however, Power Trip also coaxes us to sympathize with the electric company. Devlin manages this primarily through showing the travails of the energetic AMS project manager Piers Lewis (a college friend of the filmmaker), and his boss, soft-spoken Michael Scholey. The latter’s unlikely rise to celebrity in Tblisi is revealed in intense TV and newspaper coverage, and Georgian films featuring a cartoon Scholey. The film showcases Lewis’ and Scholey’s patience and optimism in the face of the impossible tasks they’ve been assigned, oddly mirroring the Georgians’ own hopefulness. When Lewis takes to the street to confer with protesters complaining about winter blackouts, we might sympathize with either side, and regret how the misdirected frustrations on both sides deplete the energy that’s otherwise channeled into changing things.
The real villain, as Power Trip portrays it, is the corrupt Georgian government, led at the time (the late 1990s) by the recently ousted ex-Communist, Eduard A. Shevardnadze. From interviews with the nation’s energy minister as well as with Georgian journalists, we see hints of the nepotism, cronyism, and outright gangsterism that culminate in the irrational way that available power on the grid is distributed, above and beyond AMS’s control. This shuttling of energy to favored customers typifies the government’s interference with AMS’s ability to conduct business, while blaming the company for the nation’s energy troubles. AMS tries to counter, shutting the power down the airport, army bases, and a huge chemical company favored by the Shevardnadze regime.
Amidst the chaos, another sympathetic figure emerges, the unnamed American in charge of the generating plant who demands gas to work the turbines. Dealing with indisputable facts, he explains his needs with a confident, almost condescending know-how, fully expecting to be accommodated. Time after time, the free-market missionaries of AMS explain to Georgians familiar with nothing but the haphazard prerogatives of the command economy the logic of now paying for something that was once free. That there could be anything unstable or possibly unethical about the notion of a for-profit utility, to the well-meaning middle managers on the ground in Tblisi, is simply absurd, unthinkable.
But Power Trip also calls into question the “self-evident” precepts of market economics. The system’s famous rationality breaks down when confronting unanticipated (if predictable) variables, like intransigent corruption and the lack of legal equalities. Rather than spurring innovation, the only ingenuity unleashed by capitalism without democracy is the subversion of property that capitalists must hasten to call “criminal.” If capitalism can only thrive in democracy, and democracy can only emerge in a capitalist society, then nations like Georgia are faced with a Catch-22, unless multi-nationals begin operating at a loss in order to spread “liberty” around the world.
AMS, for one, didn’t. In the film, when AMS pulls out of Georgia at the behest of stockholders, it feels like the failure of “progress.” But perhaps it could be seen as something else, as a demonstration of Georgians stubbornly and idealistically expecting a better kind of “progress,” one in which a nation guarantees its people power rather than exploiting their need for it. With Shevardnadze’s removal, maybe the chances for that future have changed from impossible to merely improbable.