Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 30, 2004 11:39 am 
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Reality trip

Paul Devlin’s Power Trip was presented at Film Forum in New York in December 2003. At the December 17 evening showing the filmmaker spoke and answered questions afterward. Devlin is an American who has done sports coverage for the major networks and made a 1995 (revised 1998) documentary -- it was also an attempted TV pilot -- on the live poetry competitions called “slams.” In the mid-Nineties a British pal from college, Piers Lewis, urged Devlin to come and visit in Georgia, former USSR, where Lewis was working for the AES Corporation of Arlington, Virginia. AES was running -- an operation, shall we say? -- to turn the state owned electrical system of the country into a private business whose users, both public and private, would be registered and have to pay for their use on a monthly basis.

Once Devlin was there the irrepressible Mr. Lewis, a young man of considerable enthusiasm and skill who at first was a major force behind AES’s work in Georgia, insisted on being filmed talking about the project and the country. He urged Devlin to begin a serious documentary film about AES’s efforts in Georgia, and Devlin did. Devlin kept his own representative filming in the country and made periodic visits over a period of about five years to see how AES-Telasi, the Georgian branch, was doing. Which was not well. Ultimately US financial debacles and the Enron scandal and his own scandalous filtering of company funds into a Christian prostelytizing campaign caused Dennis Bakke, the head of the huge international electrical conglomerate that is AES, to resign. Stockholders forced AES to give up Georgia and sell power rights to the Russians for a pittance. AES did so after throwing $200 million at the long-term problems its Georgian project presented. Bakke's personal money-filtering scandal isn't mentioned by the film.

But were AES’s intentions in Georgia admirable? It would seem so. Was its way of working in Georgia misguided? Undoubtedly. Power Trip is lucid coverage of a chaotic situation. To begin with, Georgians were used to free electricity under the Soviet system. The new $24 monthly fee was a huge chunk out of their meager incomes, and they generally refused to pay it. At first they simply made crude patches into local power outlets, creating a disastrous mess and also frequently electrocuting themselves in the process. Even major institutions like the airport and the train station didn’t pay what they owed, and AES began cutoffs to force payment, which led to more of the usual state corruption, as well as to assassinations and demonstrations in the street. Nonetheless Lewis and the other AES employees made gradual progress.

Georgia is by no means just an offshoot or loyal retainer of Russia. It has its own impenetrable terrain and a sense of fierce independence to go with it. It also has its own language, and its own peculiar writing system, which looks a bit like Armenian, or the written form of Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Aside from the general chaos and civil war the country is extremely corrupt, maybe no more so than Russia but poorer, more mountainous, rugged, and isolated. Georgians have a tendency to do things the way they want, ignoring the rules. It's no surprise that the minister of power doled out free electricity to his cronies and that the locals smashed the meters they were assigned. The film amply covers these events, and the individuals involved, first hand.

There seems to have been a huge cultural gap here. It was the old American error of expecting foreigners to snap to and gratefully adopt our system and indeed our whole culture. AES solved its problems not so much by working with people (they lacked the appropriate staff, though Lewis learned the language and was willing to engage frequently with angry crowds in the street) but by throwing money at them. Devlin does a fine job of sketching in a portrait of Georgia’s unique ways and history and the situation there while AES was making its overhasty reform efforts. It seems that the corporation’s Virginia-based CEO saw himself as spearheading a sort of gigantic Peace Corps volunteer operation. By making the electrical company profitable he might indeed have helped stabilize the country and pay off some of its debts. Since the USSR is no longer a going operation, there has to be a substitute for pure state ownership; but surely slow compromises have to be worked out, rather than the rapid changeover AES-Telasi had in mind. Bakke may have meant well; but his efforts were a spectacular failure. The trouble was impatience, vast naivety, and too much cash on hand: the temptation just to buy out a local power station if the power wasn’t being delivered as expected was too strong to resist when AES had such deep pockets. Unfortunately the problems were too manifold and complex to be solved by a few payments, buyouts, or donations.

Devlin’s presentation is admirably unbiased and un-deterministic. We don’t know where things are going ahead of time; they just unfold and devolve. The film manages a juggling act of describing Piers Lewis’s job vicissitudes as various company executives are replaced; the ups and downs of AES-Telasi; and turbulent events in the country; and the whole cultural and historical background, without ever losing the story’s momentum or our interest.

It may be a little inappropriate to the spirit of the film to draw moralistic conclusions, but it’s hard not to draw some. AES-Telasi wasn’t the sort of cynical operation Halliburton, Bechtel, and Bush's corporate cronies are undertaking in Iraq, but Power Trip tends to show that globalization is futile as well as exploitative. All the conclusions to be drawn aren’t really clear, and that’s why there was a lively discussion with Devlin at Film Forum. What is clear is that Power Trip has an important subject and deals with it in a fresh way. We need a lot more stuff like this; more Piers Lewises to lure Americans abroad with digital video cameras and open minds.

Power Trip is another in the wave of great documentaries that appeared at the end of 2003. It's undistributed but many individual screenings are scheduled in the US and worldwide (as well as on HBO Latin America) for the coming months: for the schedule see

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