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A charged look at Georgian gridlock

In the late 1990s, the American-owned company AES Corp. acquired Telasi, which used to distribute electricity in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. For as long as residents remember, the system of supplying and receiving electricity had devolved into a farce, with people risking their lives trying to connect to any live wire. The grids were overloaded, and outages were common.

Paul Devlin's "Power Trip" documents the new AES-Telasi's attempt to restore order to (and collect payment from) the city's electricity subscribers, 90 percent of whom are delinquent in their payments. At the start of the film, things already look iffy for both the Georgians and the company. The strategic projects director, Piers Lewis, vows not to cut his hair until the payment rate reaches the vicinity of 50 percent. In between the door-to-door bill collections and executive interviews, Devlin talks to a few local investigative journalists: One is forlorn about the rash of outages; another, who works for Georgia's "60 Minutes," is angry.

"Power Trip" highlights the disparity between the people and their exorbitant bills, but it's also a brief history of modern Georgia, a country whose citizens are frequently failed by their government. The now-deposed president Eduard Shevardnadze tried to bring some order, but wound up just plunging the country into even greater poverty. The film attempts to explain some of this. (It's a long, unhappy story.)

But the country's recent state of affairs is told mostly through AES's unique corporate perspective; it believes it can make a difference in Georgia's leadership vacuum. (Never mind that Shevardnadze was still in office at the time of the film's making.) The company's business model suggests that its decision might have been a terrible idea. Between the customers who can't or won't pay and the rampant, sometimes deadly thievery of power, getting a stable foothold in this situation seems downright Sisyphean.

For viewers with even an indirect exposure to critics of capitalism such as Noam Chomsky, it's tough to take what AES says seriously. More than one executive claims the company is in Tbilisi for the long haul, but its staying put comes down only to what shareholders think.

In the end, "Power Trip" is part Marxist social drama and part Michael Moore corporation-needling, with fed-up residents trying to outsmart the big, bad naive company to keep their lights on for free. What you're left with, as the misfortunes mount, is the sinking sense that power is a two-way symbol that neither the people nor the company really has.

Wesley Morris can be reached at

Power Trip
Directed by: Paul Devlin
At: Coolidge Corner
Running time: 84 minutes
Unrated (Mild language, images of men slain and electrocuted)
In English and Georgian, with subtitles

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