It follows Piers Lewis, a pony-tailed young Briton working for AES, as he tries to lift bill collection rates by shutting off power to non-paying customers. Lewis has a hard job: years of poor maintenance have left power lines unreliable, and widespread inability to pay has forced Georgians to make their own hazardous hookups. A sense of entitlement brought on by Soviet-era subsidies only exacerbates this problem.
The capital, Tbilisi, experiences near-total blackouts as the movie begins, and youths shout for electricity in the streets. Lewis and his colleagues, confronting frustrated citizens and Energy Ministry officials, tell them all the same thing. "You have to pay!"
As a result of the power failures their tough policies, AES-Telasi manager Michael Scholey becomes infamous enough for a national cartoonist to mock his facial tic. Meanwhile, Lewis struggles to rein in the National Dispatch Center, which doles out electricity as a favor to influential customers.
Devlin told EurasiaNet that his first footage captured Lewis, his friend, breaking into giggles as he describes how one of his colleagues shut the airport's lights off for lack of payment while a plane was approaching. This technique - which persuaded the airport to pay its electric bill - left thousands of Tbilisi citizens in darkness and clogged Lewis' day with arguments with angry Georgians. In one sequence, an older man in a Tbilisi market harangues a Georgian employee of AES-Telasi, calling the Americans "occupiers." Later, Lewis and another colleague visit a skiing resort in Georgia's north. There, while the AES-Telasi employees enjoy their distance from the angry customers, an American woman who has monitored elections speaks of the massive fraud she's seen.
The film's conscience resides with its first and last narrators, journalists with Tbilisi's famed 60 Minutes news program. When these journalists are not speaking, the story of corruption softens. Lewis, with his red hair and cheery voice, shapes up as a rival to the grim-faced energy minister, David Mirtskhulava. The film shows how corrupt systems can distort capitalist models, but falls short of criticizing the models themselves.
Devlin unflinchingly exposes Georgia's rampant corruption. We hear that Shevardnadze's relative's siphoned power to build a country house, and that an alarming proportion of businesses steal their power. Shevardnadze appears in news clips, spinning the death of a 60 Minutes journalist as apolitical and smiling stiffly when AES' chief executive visits Tbilisi. This broader context makes Power Trip provocative.
Devlin also contrasts Tbilisi's beauty - white statues, commanding hills, vibrant clothes - with the misery of darkness. He shows grimly funny public service announcements and follows angry teens in the street. In this mélange, the idea of simply enforcing bill collections seems simplistic.
But more developed conclusions aren't available. At one point, a British engineer visits a dilapidated housing complex and balks at how its residents have jerry-rigged electric connections. After explaining how harebrained it is to steal electricity, the engineer adds: "But I shouldn't judge." Devlin's movie falls short by not judging some characters, especially the head of AES, more critically.
Dennis Bakke, AES' blond and square-jawed CEO during the movie, speaks like a preacher, so it comes as no surprise when Lewis tells us Bakke's father and brother are both ministers. One of his first lines in the movie muses on building a business "consistent with your faith." A review in the Village Voice points out that Bakke subscribes to evangelical beliefs. But Devlin's film posits AES employees, reciting a mission statement about "fairness, integrity, social responsibility and fun," as honorable counterpoints to the corrupt bureaucracy.
AES-Telasi manager Scholey tells the camera earnestly that AES does "not profit-maximize." Since nobody could profit-maximize in Georgia without strong-arming the local ministries, this and similar statements come off as pious.
Devlin, in his interview with EurasiaNet, interpreted Bakke's quest credulously. "Can you [build a corporation] and not be evil? If so, what are you going to do?" He says this idea "resonated" with him and, in part, inspired him to take on Georgia's power supply after making a previous documentary about poetry slams. "Why is it always greed? The profit incentive is wreaking destruction across the planet."
Post-Soviet corruption affects all of Power Trip's characters. Devlin says AES discovered that Georgian law does not prohibit stealing electricity or embezzling from an employer. The film's characters also feel that history has them trapped. An archaeologist with a flowing beard, who skewers the Caucasus in a sequence that Devlin illustrates with a map, seeks solace from stamping grapes into wine at a country retreat. One of Lewis' colleagues speaks wistfully of having abandoned hopes to become an actress; we see her dancing at her church. The 60 Minutes journalists speak eloquently of the "slap in the face" they feel when their lights go out. Near the film's end, one reporter eulogizes Giorgi Sanaya, the handsome journalist who died mysteriously while reporting in the unstable Pankisi Gorge. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Devlin knows that Georgia's system leaves people in the dark in many ways. He found it surprising that the Energy Minister let him shoot a meeting with AES, he says, but later wonders whether bureaucrats plan to carry on with their corrupt practices no matter what AES or an American filmmaker thought of it.
At the end of the film, printed text tells the viewer that Bakke quit under pressure from shareholders and that Russian monopoly RAO Unified Energy Systems now controls Georgia's power. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Devlin- who tentatively plans to screen the film in February in Tbilisi- sees his characters facing a painful future. "The problem is, you're basically a sucker if you don't follow the corrupt path," he told EurasiaNet. "It's going to take people who are willing to give their lives to fight corruption." Power Trip illuminates the power of Georgia's entrenched corruption, but it limits its own force by refusing to hold the arriviste capitalists to the same scrutiny.
Alec Appelbaum is EurasiaNets contributing editor