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    Piers Lewis explains local power outages to an angry public in the streets of Tbilisi. in Power Trip
    Piers Lewis explains local power outages to an angry public in the streets of Tbilisi.

    Bringing power to the people

    "Power Trip" observes an American energy company's struggle to overhaul the disastrous energy sector in a tiny former-Soviet republic where many of the people don't want or understand them.


    On the heels of the latest upheaval in Georgia (that is, the troubled former republic of the Soviet Union, not Scarlett O'Hara's home state), the documentary "Power Trip" gives an up-close look at a poor communist country's transition to capitalism through an unexpected vehicle — the local power company.

    Directed by: Paul Devlin.
    Produced by: Paul Devlin, Valery Odikadze, Claire Missanelli.
    Featuring: Piers Lewis, Michael Scholey, Dennis Bakke, Butch Mederos, Leeka Basilaia, Akaki Gogichaishvili, Nino Khonelidze.
    In English and Georgian with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100 Opens Dec. 10, 2003

    The film follows about a year in the struggle by EAS — a large American energy corporation run by devout Christians who believe in using their company to serve humanity by providing electricity — to overhaul the failing Georgian power company Telasi. Among other innovations, the Americans bring their eastern counterparts corporatese.

    "We put in the meters at $100 a customer, entirely at the company's expense," boasts one company representative. "So we can build the Telasi-customer relationship in a clearly defined way. That's the basis of the relationship — the meter."

    This kind of "relationship" doesn't make sense to customers who, under communism, never had to pay for electricity at all. Crowds regularly confront the AES managers with outrage when their power is shut off for nonpayment.

    "Ugly Germans made us hate our country," rants one man, recalling the Nazi era. "Now the Americans will do the same. They are occupiers. I don't want their credit or their money."

    This is the heart of the culture clash captured in the film. The American "occupiers" see themselves as upgrading the system and putting it on a sound financial basis, even if it means shutting off power to hundreds of broke customers at a time. They point to illegal hookups, tangled masses of wire, burnt-out equipment and deadly switching stations as the result of communist-era neglect. They estimate that only 10 percent of customers are paying their bills, and most have spliced themselves illegally, untraceably and dangerously into other people's connections.

    Squatters in an uncompleted Soviet housing complex, unable to get power legally, risked their lives for free electricity by hooking illegal wiring into the grid. in Power Trip  
    Squatters in an uncompleted Soviet housing complex, unable to get power legally, risked their lives for free electricity by hooking illegal wiring into the grid.
    But the population, for whom a simple $25 power bill eats up a massive part of their income, reacts with predictable fury to the new regime. To the company, change is messy but necessary. To the people, it seems like the death of hope.

    Capitalism comes off pretty well in "Power Trip." AES is in the forefront of a necessary change in mentality, and it's trying to bring a certain dynamism to the country's economy. Company managers get a fair chance to explain that if they don't get paid for the electricity they produce, they can't buy the fuel that produces it — that's why all of this is necessary. We can see in detail how putting the business on a sound financial footing makes the system work, and those of us who are used to paying the stupid electric bill every month, like it or not, can understand the heartless logic of it. When it turns out that the public's power has been cut off because bureaucrats with backroom connections are switching it to the military, government and high officials' houses — many of whom don't pay their bills either — company officials are the ones fighting the system.

    Others are on the ground dealing with customers one-on-one, where we see both change and resistance most clearly. An inspiring British-born middle manager named Piers Lewis, who has vowed not to cut his hair until collections reach 50 percent, divides his time between motivating the staff and handling irate mobs. It's by peering over his shoulder that we really see how change is happening, one disgruntled customer at a time.

    Yet, capitalism may have the last brutal laugh in this case. Once we've gotten to know and respect some of the people involved in this historic change, we're reminded that the global energy business has been a little bit insane this decade and Georgia is a tiny, remote outpost, almost beneath the notice of executives in an American office park. The enterprise has its failings, and they arise from the home office as well as the political upheaval in Georgia.

    DECEMBER 10, 2003

    Reader comments on Power Trip:

  • Butch Mederos   from Messi, Jan 30, 2009

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