Fighting The Power: Paul Devlin’s Electrifying Doc “Power Trip”
by Adam Hart
It’s a little unbelievable that one of the most entertaining, bracing documentaries of 2003 — Paul Devlin’s “Power Trip” is about electricity. In Tblisi, one of the larger cities in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, the struggle to get electricity to the people has taken on absurd, bizarre dimensions. The population, still accustomed to Communist-era public works systems, obstinately refuses to start paying for something they’ve always gotten for free (and one only needs to take a look at, say, Seattle’s recent overwhelming rejection of a ten-cent Espresso tax to realize that this is hardly a localized tendency), but the American-based multinational AES has been making its best efforts to rebuild one of the city’s most important infrastructures. The Georgian people’s slow adjustment, and their justifiable anger and impatience directed towards the company holding their electricity in its hands is both comical (in the absurdly brilliant maneuvers around the system to continue getting free power) and harrowing (near riots have broken out during blackouts).
AES, a company with a charter so charitable as to make most businessmen scratch their heads in wonder, stepped in a little presumptuously to a situation so complex and emotionally driven that everything they thought they knew about running a power company had to be discarded. Persistence has largely won over the population and managed to get around the laughably crooked politicians, but recent world events have once again complicated the situation even further. As Georgian politics has started to make headlines around the world, and nation-building and privatization has become a topic of discussion for other regions of the globe, a film like “Power Trip” grows increasingly valuable. Any document that deals with the kind of administration seen here, rarely portrayed as anything other than a collection of statistics, in such an intimate, human manner is welcome. When a filmmaker can explore it on this many levels, and do it with so much wit and cleverness, the film takes on a value that’s difficult to measure in mere enjoyment. indieWIRE contributor Adam Hart spoke to Paul Devlin about “Power Trip,” which opens at New York’s Film Forum on December 10 and will also play in other select cities.
indieWIRE: How did you come across this topic?
Paul Devlin: I know one of the main characters, Piers Lewis [one of AES’ top managers in Tblisi]. I went to visit him in Tblisi — he works all over the world, and I sometimes use him as an excuse to travel. While I was there, he really pitched the movie. He thought there were some amazing things going on with all this post-Soviet transition stuff and the crazy characters. I had just finished “Slam Nation” and I was thinking about what I was going to do next. At first I thought, “How on earth am I going to show this idea in a film? It’s too big, too vast.” But Piers persisted. The first thing I did was send him a Super-8 camera that he gave to a local news guy, and he shot authorities pulling down all the illegal power lines. That’s the first thing they had to do, get the illegal lines down. Then I went in spring of 2000 and started shooting. I was hoping for a demo, and I wound up catching all the disconnections, the crazy guy in the market, the street rioting and I realized that those were the kinds of images I could show that would communicate this. So then I got committed and kept going back. I was there about five times total, staying three or four weeks each time.
iW: What’s changed since the end of your filming?
Devlin: Not much, unfortunately. It’s actually gotten worse. AES is still there, but they still have a lot of the same problems. [Since this interview, dramatic events in Georgia have changed the situation in Tbilisi significantly.] This past winter was very bad, there were a lot of blackouts. There’s still a lot of political wrangling. At one point, the opposition party told customers to stop paying their bills and that really undermined AES. There was talk for a while that the energy minister was going to go to jail. The most outrageous thing I heard recently was that the government sold of some of the sub-stations that you see in the movie – like when [the operator] says “This is the Chinese Embassy, this is the metro.” Even though AES owned those, the government sold those to a third party who then started charging rent to AES on sub-stations they already owned. So, there’s crazy stuff like that going on. There’s a lot of talk that the Georgians figure AES wants to sell, and they want to do anything they can to undermine the price. And all the people are caught in the middle, so they don’t get electricity as a result of these big political machinations.
iW: What kind of problems did you have filming? I mean that both in the sense of equipment and power, and the fact that your film depicts very extreme reactions to news reporters. Did you catch any of that flak yourself?
Devlin: I was on my own, so that made it a little easier since I didn’t have to have a crew. I decided to use all natural lighting, both as an aesthetic choice and an excuse not to bring a light kit, so I could do all that myself. I was worried when I first got there about charging my batteries, because electricity was so erratic. Luckily, Piers has that generator that you see in the movie. I was staying with him, so I would charge in his system. That’s how I got access to him in his apartment. I would shoot him as much as I could. I had some privileged access staying with him. Once that problem was solved I didn’t have to worry about the electricity, but it was hard to be there. You were in the dark a lot, and it was cold, and everyone’s depressed. You walk down the street and it’s pitch dark to the point that you have to worry about falling in a pothole, so you have to carry some kind of flashlight. As far as reactions from people go, a lot of the older Georgians refused to talk to the camera at all, and that’s paranoia left over from the Soviet times.
iW: Well, in the film, a news reporter is assassinated.
Devlin: Right. There was one reporter who was assassinated, and then at the end we have an epilogue saying that an AES employee who was not in the film was assassinated also. But I didn’t feel any personal threat. I think as a foreigner, it would be a much bigger deal to be threatened by someone than for a Georgian. For example, nobody here has heard that Gyorgi [a muckracking journalist and national hero] was assassinated, but if I was assassinated that would make news. I was also very under the wire because I was alone, I didn’t do too much agitating. I was underground, in a way. I don’t think they were aware of what I was doing, and if they were they didn’t make it known to me that they were concerned. I had one incident at night where some guys in a big black car got out and told me to get off the street with my camera. I think it might have been for my protection, that they didn’t want a foreigner to be accosted and his stuff stolen. When I first got to Georgia, I got robbed by a policeman — he stopped our taxi and wouldn’t let us go until I gave him some money. There’s a lot of that kind of thing. The other thing that was worrisome was that during the big demonstrations, the kids would get all worked up to the point where they were screaming and jumping in front of the camera. Then they would start pulling on me and pulling on my camera and my back, and they wouldn’t go away. At these big demonstrations all the rules go away. The parents are banging on cars and stopping traffic and burning tires, so the kids go a little bit wild.
iW: How do you feel about what AES is doing?
Devlin: Really, the movie just wants to observe. I tried to avoid making too many judgments. One of the goals was to keep my opinions out of it, whether or not that’s a good idea. I’m basically a tourist. My opinions are not necessarily as interesting as what the people think, and what AES thinks about what they’re doing. I think AES went in there a little bit naive, and they went in to make money, obviously. Their mandate was a little bit broader than most corporations. I started learning about their corporate values, which are unusual. Some people don’t believe that they’re true, but they do profess to have the values of fairness, social responsibility, etc. I think that at least the top guys are sincere about that. Whether or not those values get implemented on the ground is another matter. But they try their best to make it work. They were a little naive and got a little overextended.
I think that the movie illustrates how difficult that kind of enterprise can be and how the current model for privatization is perhaps not working. It’s a really graphic example of why the frenzy to privatize may need to be rethought. That’s the lesson that AES has learned, at least that’s what they told me. We go into these markets and think we’ll bring our values, our structures and our organization to this culture and just drop it on top of them and expect it to work, and they’re realizing that it doesn’t work. People have to realize that it’s more complicated than that, and I think the movie illustrates that. Hopefully that will motivate people to start searching for a better model.
iW: There’s a note at the end about Enron that really makes it clear how much what happens here affects the rest of the world.
Devlin: That’s true. The Enron scandal pulled the rug out and sort of ruined Georgia’s chances for a good electrical supply. Isn’t that amazing? That’s just one instance. Think about the repercussions for all these different things interacting all over the world. It’s just crazy.
iW: How was the process finding financial backing and distribution?
Devlin: Well financial backing, prior to completion, was utterly impossible to find. I tried all the usual suspects as far as foundations and grants go.
iW: It’s not a very sexy premise, you have to admit.
Devlin: Right. “So I’m examining the electricity sector in the Soviet Republic of Georgia.” “What are you, nuts? You think we’re gonna pay for that?” You really can’t have faith that it’s going to work on any level until after its execution. I think, unfortunately, I seem to be attracted to those projects. My last picture was “Slam Nation,” which was about performance poetry. Some people would rather shoot themselves in the head than watch 90 minutes of poetry. But once you see the movie, it’s compelling — it’s like “Spellbound” and has that competition and suspense and a lot of egos.
The same challenge happened with “Power Trip”: how are we going to make this entertaining? How am I going to make people sit through 85 minutes about electricity? The key is to make it really about other things. It’s about the struggle to build a new nation. It’s about the culture clash of these crazy Americans meeting these crazy Georgians. It’s about what it means not to have electricity and the emotion that’s attached to that. We don’t understand that. I think as people see the movie they realize how that is true and how good they have it, and what it would mean to them if suddenly someone took it away. I think if you focus on those elements, it makes it more compelling and entertaining. I would like to say that documentaries should be entertaining. So we have a little cartoon element [an animated segment from Georgian television that satirizes AES executives]. We have the old humorous commercials AES did. We tried to add all those elements in to break up the story, because there’s a lot of information to absorb.