With its rampant corruption, political assassinations and regular street riots, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia is, in the words of one journalist, "a basket case." During the country’s old Soviet days, electric power was cheap—or even free. But when AES Corp., a massive "global power company," purchases the privatized electricity distribution company in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, everything changes. POWER TRIP is the story of the tragicomic clash of cultures that results when an American energy conglomerate takes over a formerly state-run electricity company in a country whose residents are, at best, ambivalent, and, at worst, furious about its presence there.
When POWER TRIP begins in 1999, nearly 90 percent of AES's customers are refusing to pay their electricity bills. Many are being billed for utilities for the first time in their lives—under Communism, the state provided everyone with electricity. Now, AES’s 24-dollar-a-month utility bill is about half of the average Georgian’s monthly income. Unable to afford payments, the citizens of Tbilisi install flimsy wires across their buildings, stealing electricity from their neighbors.
Piers Lewis, the project manager for AES, explains the conflict: "AES-Telasi is here to make them pay, and they don't want to pay. But somebody has to pay to fix this system." AES's initial strategy is to disconnect non-paying customers en masse, in order to compel payment. But angry customers quickly overrun its offices, many claiming that they have already paid their bills. The company soon discovers that many of the customers' payments have been stolen somewhere along the payment stream. As disconnections continue, anger turns to rioting and the managers of AES-Telasi are forced to re-evaluate their strategy.
The erratic supply of electricity to Tbilisi from the National Dispatch is another tangled knot that Piers Lewis tries to unravel as he struggles with institutional corruption. The winter of 2001 is one of the harshest in memory as dwindling supply has left most of the city with electricity for only three or four hours a day. Customers take to the streets almost daily to burn tires and block traffic, protesting against the American company. Corrupt political interests in the Georgian government have diverted much of the electricity supply purchased by AES-Telasi to non-paying industrial customers in outlying regions, leaving Tbilisi in virtual darkness.
POWER TRIP also introduces such Tbilisians as Datto, the Georgian commercial billing manager who is not above temporarily disconnecting an airport just as a plane is landing in order to compel it to pay its debt; Akaki, who hosts a Georgian investigative journalism show called 60 Minutes and has dodged multiple death threats; and his colleague Giorgi, a news anchor, who was murdered in his apartment after viewing an incriminating videotape. As AES-Telasi appears to be making progress, the Enron scandal undermines the entire U.S. energy sector, devastating AES stock. Shareholders insist that AES pull out of Georgia, while the U.S. government pressures its employees to stay, as terrorist threats increase in nearby regions.
As it explores the implications of a Western-fueled pursuit of globalization and privatization, POWER TRIP’s surprisingly humorous, non-fiction narrative provides insight into today's headlines while also offering an affectionate and entertaining glimpse into a country struggling to rebuild itself from the rubble of Soviet collapse.
Filmmaker Paul Devlin began shooting POWER TRIP in April 2000 and concluded filming in the fall of 2002. In December 2004, he reported:
Piers Lewis (AES strategic projects director) left Georgia after AES sold Telasi. He now performs operational audits of AES businesses around the world from their headquarters outside Washington, D.C.
In 2001, Michael Scholey (AES general director) was promoted to AES division manager based in Istanbul, Turkey. He later worked for AES in Central America and Ukraine. He left AES in 2004 to attend London Business School on the Sloan Fellowship program.
Dennis Bakke (AES co-founder and CEO) is now president and CEO of Imagine Schools, a company that operates elementary and secondary charter schools in ten U.S. states. He is also the author of The Joy of Work.
After several years with 60 Minutes, Leeka Basilaia returned to the print medium as the editor and chief of the Georgian language daily, New Version.
Recent political changes in Georgia brought a lot of optimism and hope. However, when POWER TRIP premiered in Tbilisi in February 2004, the filmmakers found that many of Georgia’s problems with power remained. The new players on the power scene insisted that a POWER TRIP sequel be made.
Meet the people featured in POWER TRIP >>
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