Georgia on the Mind

A contractor for American multi-national AES assesses how to remove countless illegal lines that are used to steal electricity by residents of Tbilisi. (Photo by Paul Devlin)
Tbilisi's transition to free enterprise has not been as simple as flipping a switch

When I lived in Tbilisi, the capital of what was then still Soviet Georgia, power outages were erratic, frequent, and exasperating. Sporadic returns to the dark ages meant peeing by flashlight, sleeping in an overcoat, and eating uncooked crumbs. Grousing about the ineptitude and indifference of Communist bureaucracy provided cold comfort. Georgia declared its independence in 1991, but the transition to democracy and free enterprise has not been as simple as flipping a switch. Throughout a decade of civil war and economic collapse, Georgians have suffered from the instability of power - both electrical and governmental.

Power Trip is a nonfiction account of one country's transition to a market economy. Director Paul Devlin, whose previous work has included broadcasts of football, basketball, soccer, and other sporting events, presents Tbilisi as an urban arena in which Telasi, the company that supplies electricity to Georgian homes and businesses, wrestles with a populace that refuses to settle its debts. When Applied Energy Services (AES), an American conglomerate based in Virginia, buys Telasi for $35 million, it begins losing $120,000 per day. Accustomed to receiving free electricity under the old regime, Georgians, whose average monthly income is $15, balk at paying for their power. Forty percent of customers rig up illegal, often dangerous, lines. AES-Telasi responds to an epidemic of overdue bills by cutting off electricity to 90 percent of customers. Power Trip begins with images of furious consumers converging on the streets of Tbilisi.

Generators, grids, and meters are fairly abstract matters, but the film personalizes the situation by focusing on a few engaging personalities. Piers Lewis, a cheerful young Londoner who works for AES-Telasi, sports shoulder-length hair throughout the film on account of a vow not to cut his locks until half the bills are paid. Proclaiming "integrity, responsibility, social fairness, and fun" as organizational principles, Dennis Bakke, CEO and co-founder of AES, insists that he is driven less by profits than compassion for the Georgian people. "Our purpose is to serve the world," he says. But he cannot provide power without recompense. "If you don't have power, it means you are hungry," notes broadcast journalist Akaki Gogichaishvili. "You are cold. You're in the dark. No information. It's like being dead."

Power Trip

Dir. Paul Devlin (NR)

Power Trip is the lively story of a culture clash that is more complex than the scenario of a nefarious multinational corporation invading a remote mountainous republic. Like many others who have stumbled into the Caucasus, the managers of AES seem genuinely enamored of the zestful Georgians, who have been conquered by Persians, Turks, Mongols, and Russians - but not despair. "You have to enjoy life even when you're on the edge of disaster," declares a Georgian official. Fleeting sequences in Power Trip savor the distinctiveness of local wine, cheese, music, dance, and landscape. Much of the dialogue is in Georgian, a language that resembles no other. Georgian history, unlike anything imagined by Margaret Mitchell, is alluded to in brief clips of native sons Josef Stalin and Eduard Shevardnadze, who was ousted from the presidency last November.

Like a six-sided outlet clogged with extension cord plugs, Power Trip overloads its account of resistance by a post-Communist populace to capitalist culture. But it ought to spark interest in a fascinating outpost about which most Americans remain in the dark. •

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