Producer/Director/Editor Paul Devlin talks about the challenges that former Soviet states are now facing, the difficulties in obtaining interviews in Tbilisi and getting robbed on his first day on the job.
What led you to make POWER TRIP?
I had recently finished my previous film SlamNation and needed a long vacation, part of which took me to Turkey. There, I met up with my University of Michigan friend Piers Lewis (who is the main character in POWER TRIP). He invited me to Tbilisi, Georgia where he had been working for several years, most recently for AES, a huge multi-national power company.
While I was in Tbilisi, Piers suggested that I do a movie about what was happening in Georgia with AES, who had recently purchased Tbilisi’s privatized electricity distribution company. He pointed out that most people in the West had no idea what was going on in the post-Soviet Union, even though it was a monumental transition that was generating countless fascinating stories.
It didn’t seem like a practical premise for a movie to me at first, but Piers persisted and I gradually realized that the culture clash human conflicts could provide the drama that would illuminate the larger issues. And then Piers told me that he wasn’t going to cut his hair until the job was done, and my first dramatic arc materialized…
What do you want to achieve with POWER TRIP? How have audiences reacted so far?
The audience reaction has been phenomenal so far. The movie surprises people because the subject matter sounds dry at first, so they are delighted to be so amused and thankful to be so moved. We’ve screened in over 50 U.S. cities and 60 countries, in theaters, festivals and on television.
I hope that POWER TRIP achieves some understanding about the challenges that the post-Soviet states are facing and illuminates some of the potential pitfalls of globalization and privatization. We’ve had special screenings for the World Bank, IFC and the US State Department, and for those groups POWER TRIP is sobering and often generates some soul-searching discussion that may make a difference.
We’re trying some unusual distribution strategies, which may eventually pay off, so breaking even on an independent non-fiction film would be a significant achievement as well.
Tell us more about the interview process used in the film. How did you gain access to the subjects and earn their trust?
The customer interviews out on the city streets and in apartment blocks were sometimes difficult. Many Georgians refused to be interviewed, remembering repressive Soviet times. But when emotions ran high at the demonstrations, for example, most ignored the camera.
My access to AES interviews came initially through Piers Lewis. People indulged me because Piers asked them to, but I don’t think many took me seriously at first. No one thought it was possible that a movie about electricity in Georgia would ever be seen.
However, when the general director of AES-Telasi in Tbilisi, Michael Scholey, was visiting New York, I invited him to my editing studio. I believe that when he saw the potential of the story I was putting together, he became an ally as well. After Mike got behind the project, my access was greatly magnified, not only within AES, but also with government officials, for example.
AES-Telasi was often in public relations battles with the Georgian government over who was to blame for the electricity problems in Tbilisi. So I tried to give interview subjects a platform to tell their side of the story.
The fact that I kept coming back to Tbilisi over the course of more than two years also worked to my advantage. People at AES got used to my running around with my camera, and I was often greeted with a smile and tips about interesting things to shoot.
What were some interesting events you experienced while making POWER TRIP?
I was robbed by a policeman my first few hours in the Republic of Georgia, even before I started shooting. I had arrived overland from Turkey on my own and hired a car out of Batumi, which is a pretty rough port town in a formerly separatist region of Georgia. In the hills nearby, a policeman pulled the car over and threatened to arrest me unless I paid him. He wanted most of the cash declared on my customs form, but after some haggling settled for the money in my wallet, about $50.
My interview with the Energy Minister was cancelled several times before he finally spoke to me. The people at Georgia’s 60 Minutes were jealous because they could never get an interview with him. The Minister would occasionally interrupt the process to take phone calls, and of course I kept the camera running. I was surprised how much he revealed during these conversations. The entire interview was conducted in the Georgian language through a translator, so I was also surprised when he came up to me while I was packing up and spoke in very good English, asking about New York, how the project was going, and other pleasant small talk from a congenial man.
What was the most challenging part of this film to make?
Perhaps the 35mm print, which completely wiped out my savings, when the Berlin Film Festival called on short notice and said we were only invited if we screened on film rather than video.
Or perhaps it was all the translation of dozens of hours of footage in the Georgian language and the difficult subtitling process.
Or maybe it was converting the 4:3 Master to widescreen 16:9, required by the BBC broadcast, which meant repositioning almost every shot in the movie.
But most likely it was creating a coherent narrative out of such complex, sometimes abstract material that not only developed a dramatic story but also brought insight to the larger themes of globalization and transition to capitalism—and then convincing people that we had succeeded in this enough to make an exciting, marketable movie.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The independent film business is like gambling. The level of success increases just enough to keep you coming back for more, with the illusion that you’ll hit the jackpot rather than pauperize yourself in the process.
I guess I’m a gambler.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
Over-air broadcast: Can’t beat the massive audience!
What are your three favorite films?
When We Were Kings, Days of Heaven, Dig!
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
“Patience and persistence.”
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Contemporaries met along the way.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
Audio is more important than video.
What sparks your creativity?