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Feature

Time Out New York

Nervous energy

In Power Trip, it's lights-out for a U.S.
utility company in a former Soviet republic

By Darren D'Addario


December 11-18, 2003


POWER TO THE PEOPLE
Piers Lewis, an AES manager, debates Georgians.
Soon after New York documentarian Paul Devlin arrived in the nation of Georgia to make a movie, a police officer stopped him and confiscated all his cash. The matter-of-fact mugging was only a hint of the social breakdown Devlin would witness while directing Power Trip, his chronicle of an American energy company's misbegotten attempts to do business in a country overrun by corruption and chaos. "A lot of Georgians think now that [deposed president] Eduard Shevardnadze is gone, everything will improve," Devlin says, discussing the current Georgian political situation in a midtown cafe. "But that's only the [beginning] of the things that need to happen."

A New Jersey native, Devlin works as a freelance editor for CBS Sports. In between preparing segments for Super Bowls and the Tour de France, he completed his first documentary, the 1998 spoken-word poetry film SlamNation. He happened on a topic for his second nonfiction film during a 1999 visit to his college roommate, Piers Lewis, in Tbilisi. Lewis was then stationed in the Georgian capital as a regional manager for AES, a Virginia-based power company that paid $35 million for the rights to Tbilisi's utility, In 2000, Devlin began documenting the company's disastrous attempts to get Georgians to do something they'd never done before-pay for energy.

"Georgia is located in a strategic part of the world, but it's very small and has gotten conquered for thousands of years," he explains. "The people adapted a survival strategy: milk the conqueror, During the Soviet era, it was very effective. With independence, there was no outside power to steal from anymore. Then the Americans [AES] came along, and they were seen as the next conqueror,"

Impoverished Georgians rigged illegal wires, tapping free electricity to keep themselves from freezing, and the military and government refused to pay their bills. Some Georgians even resorted to outlandish schemes. "People in remote mountain areas would hold the power lines hostage," Devlin says, "They'd say, 'I'm going to shoot down the lines unless you pay me.'"

Such is the level of desperation for a populace that has proved woefully ill-prepared for autonomy in the years since the Soviet collapse, "It's really depressing to hear Georgians wax nostalgic about the Communist system," Devlin says. "But they're disappointed with independence,"

AES was equally disappointed with its Tbilisi experiment. After sinking more than $200 million into the money pit, they sold the city's energy rights to a Russian concern. "I think the Georgians realized too late the implications of AES leaving," Devlin says. "A major American company came in and got its butt kicked. Now who's going to take a huge risk and invest there?"

Power Trip is now playing at Film Forum.