Power Trip

Upon description, Paul Devlin's fine documentary Power Trip sounds like a typical piece of agit-prop, another in the scrap heap of leftist hatchet jobs to emerge in the dark days of globalization and the Bush Administration. In 1999, AES Corp. (a massive American power company with interests around the globe) invested $35 million to acquire Telasi, a formerly state-run electricity-distribution outfit in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. With democracy and free enterprise taking tenuous root, AES wanted to seize on a growth opportunity, but didn't fully anticipate the poverty and corruption that had thrown the country into chaos, civil war, and Third World squalor. On average, Georgian customers were running up a $24 electricity bill every month when wages were as low as $15. As a result, AES was operating at a miserable 10 percent collection rate and hemorrhaging money at $120,000 a day, while saddled with the additional burden of installing new meters and hemming the crumbling infrastructure. With shareholders and company brass seeking a return on their investment, AES-Telasi administrators' only recourse was to cut power on delinquent accounts and risk drawing the ire of an already restless populace. The battle lines seem clearly drawn: A greedy, arrogant, hubristic American company, anxious to fill the literal power vacuum left by communism's demise, wraps its talons around a poor country's neck, plunging it further into darkness and despair. But Power Trip, to its enormous credit, doesn't cast the conflict as cut-and-dried exploitation. It presents something altogether more complex–too complex, unfortunately, for an 85-minute documentary to elucidate perfectly. Approaching the situation journalistically, Devlin does his best to get a handle on the challenges involved in wiring such a volatile country, which only just ousted scandal-ridden President Edward Shevardnadze amid violent protest. As a strong through-line, Devlin follows the charismatic Piers Lewis, his former University Of Michigan classmate, who has lived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi for six years, speaks its arcane language fluently, and serves as a project director for AES-Telasi. Early in the film, Lewis vows not to cut his hair until his region nets a 50 percent collection rate, which explains why he's grown such a lion's mane before the company starts to turn things around. Though about 40 percent of residential customers bypass meters through dense and deadly circuits of homemade wiring, Lewis and his colleagues have an even bigger problem with corporations and government agencies not paying their bills. If Power Trip could be said to have a villain, then it's the Fuel And Energy Minister, who arranges exceptions for business cronies but, in the ultimate irony, doesn't even pay his own electric bill. But mostly, Devlin addresses an impossible quagmire with sympathy for supplier and consumer alike, showing how they all work in good faith to drag Georgia into the 21st century. Ominous coda aside, the film is that rarest of rarities: a portrait of corporate responsibility.

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