Power Trip (documentary)

One of the advantages of living in the Soviet Union was that you didn’t have to pay for electricity. The state provided it. Free electricity and free beatings, that was the deal. When the Soviet republic of Georgia declared independence in 1991 (shortly before the Soviet Union fell), regulated, reliable electricity was one of the first casualties. Freedom meant living in the dark, at least for a while.

“Power Trip” tells the story of AES Corp., the American company that came into Georgia in 1999 to provide power to the people and faced myriad problems in doing it. The Georgians had been getting power however they could, tapping into wires, stealing from neighbors, etc., usually dangerously. AES set out to install meters, establish safe hookups, and — this was the kicker — charge people for the service.

When you’re used to paying utility bills, paying for electricity sounds reasonable. But when it’s always been free before, and when the average residential electrical bill is $24 — compared to the average Georgian monthly salary of $15-$75 — you’re probably not going to like it. The Georgians didn’t. When the film begins, only 10 percent of them were paying their bills. As a result, AES couldn’t afford the materials necessary to produce enough power — and much of the power they were producing was being diverted by the Minster of Energy to fatcats who NEVER paid their bills. Old ways die hard, even a decade after the regime has fallen.

Documentarian Paul Devlin follows the leaders of AES through a year of ups and downs in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Piers Lewis, AES’ affable, self-deprecating project director, says he won’t cut his hair until 50 percent of their customers are paying their bills. (It gets very long.) He recounts how AES shut off the power at the airport for non-payment, until an incoming flight terrified them into paying it after all.

AES seems to be doing all it can. It was founded by Dennis Bakke, a well-spoken man who came from a family of preachers and who acts like he came from a family of preachers, and who seems sincere when he talks about electricity as a fundamental need that AES is happy to supply. They just need people to PAY for it, that’s all.

There are near-riots when non-paying customers are disconnected, and some comedy when angry residents smash the newly installed meters — as if THAT’S going to help them get their power back. AES director Michael Scholey becomes a national celebrity, so frequently does he appear on Georgian television to discuss the crisis.

The entire film has a feeling of bemusement to it, as if filmmaker Devlin can scarcely believe it’s happening. It all plays like a surreal comedy of errors. But it has a serious side, too. A Georgian journalist says, “Electricity is very much connected with hope…. People have lost hope.”

B (1 hr., 24 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a smattering of harsh profanity.)