Rene — Fighting The Power: Paul Devlin's Electrifying Doc "Power Trip"

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Fighting The Power: Paul Devlin’s Electrifying Doc “Power Trip”
By Adam Hart
It’s a little unbelievable that one of the most entertaining, bracing
documentaries of 2003 — Paul Devlin’s “Power Trip” is about
electricity. In Tblisi, one of the larger cities in the former Soviet
Republic of Georgia, the struggle to get electricity to the people has
taken on absurd, bizarre dimensions. The population, still accustomed to
Communist-era public works systems, obstinately refuses to start paying
for something they’ve always gotten for free (and one only needs to take
a look at, say, Seattle’s recent overwhelming rejection of a ten-cent
Espresso tax to realize that this is hardly a localized tendency), but
the American-based multinational AES has been making its best efforts to
rebuild one of the city’s most important infrastructures. The Georgian
people’s slow adjustment, and their justifiable anger and impatience
directed towards the company holding their electricity in its hands is
both comical (in the absurdly brilliant maneuvers around the system to
continue getting free power) and harrowing (near riots have broken out
during blackouts).
AES, a company with a charter so charitable as to make most businessmen
scratch their heads in wonder, stepped in a little presumptuously to a
situation so complex and emotionally driven that everything they thought
they knew about running a power company had to be discarded. Persistence
has largely won over the population and managed to get around the
laughably crooked politicians, but recent world events have once again
complicated the situation even further. As Georgian politics has started
to make headlines around the world, and nation-building and
privatization has become a topic of discussion for other regions of the
globe, a film like “Power Trip” grows increasingly valuable. Any
document that deals with the kind of administration seen here, rarely
portrayed as anything other than a collection of statistics, in such an
intimate, human manner is welcome. When a filmmaker can explore it on
this many levels, and do it with so much wit and cleverness, the film
takes on a value that’s difficult to measure in mere enjoyment.
indieWIRE contributor Adam Hart spoke to Paul Devlin about “Power Trip,”
which opens at New York’s Film Forum on December 10 and will also play
in other select cities.
indieWIRE: How did you come across this topic?
Paul Devlin: I know one of the main characters, Piers Lewis [one of AES’
top managers in Tblisi]. I went to visit him in Tblisi — he works all
over the world, and I sometimes use him as an excuse to travel. While I
was there, he really pitched the movie. He thought there were some
amazing things going on with all this post-Soviet transition stuff and
the crazy characters. I had just finished “Slam Nation” and I was
thinking about what I was going to do next. At first I thought, “How on
earth am I going to show this idea in a film? It’s too big, too vast.”
But Piers persisted. The first thing I did was send him a Super-8 camera
that he gave to a local news guy, and he shot authorities pulling down
all the illegal power lines. That’s the first thing they had to do, get
the illegal lines down. Then I went in spring of 2000 and started
shooting. I was hoping for a demo, and I wound up catching all the
disconnections, the crazy guy in the market, the street rioting and I
realized that those were the kinds of images I could show that would
communicate this. So then I got committed and kept going back. I was
there about five times total, staying three or four weeks each time.
iW: What’s changed since the end of your filming?
Devlin: Not much, unfortunately. It’s actually gotten worse. AES is
still there, but they still have a lot of the same problems. This past
winter was very bad, there were a lot of blackouts. There’s still a lot
of political wrangling. At one point, the opposition party told
customers to stop paying their bills and that really undermined AES.
There was talk for a while that the energy minister was going to go to
jail. The most outrageous thing I heard recently was that the government
sold of some of the sub-stations that you see in the movie – like when
[the operator] says “This is the Chinese Embassy, this is the metro.”
Even though AES owned those, the government sold those to a third party
who then started charging rent to AES on sub-stations they already
owned. So, there’s crazy stuff like that going on. There’s a lot of talk
that the Georgians figure AES wants to sell, and they want to do
anything they can to undermine the price. And all the people are caught
in the middle, so they don’t get electricity as a result of these big
political machinations.
iW: What kind of problems did you have filming? I mean that both in the
sense of equipment and power, and the fact that your film depicts very
extreme reactions to news reporters. Did you catch any of that flak
Devlin: I was on my own, so that made it a little easier since I didn’t
have to have a crew. I decided to use all natural lighting, both as an
aesthetic choice and an excuse not to bring a light kit, so I could do
all that myself. I was worried when I first got there about charging my
batteries, because electricity was so erratic. Luckily, Piers has that
generator that you see in the movie. I was staying with him, so I would
charge in his system. That’s how I got access to him in his apartment. I
would shoot him as much as I could. I had some privileged access staying
with him. Once that problem was solved I didn’t have to worry about the
electricity, but it was hard to be there. You were in the dark a lot,
and it was cold, and everyone’s depressed. You walk down the street and
it’s pitch dark to the point that you have to worry about falling in a
pothole, so you have to carry some kind of flashlight. As far as
reactions from people go, a lot of the older Georgians refused to talk
to the camera at all, and that’s paranoia left over from the Soviet times.
iW: Well, in the film, a news reporter is assassinated.
Devlin: Right. There was one reporter who was assassinated, and then at
the end we have an epilogue saying that an AES employee who was not in
the film was assassinated also. But I didn’t feel any personal threat. I
think as a foreigner, it would be a much bigger deal to be threatened by
someone than for a Georgian. For example, nobody here has heard that
Gyorgi [a muckracking journalist and national hero] was assassinated,
but if I was assassinated that would make news. I was also very under
the wire because I was alone, I didn’t do too much agitating. I was
underground, in a way. I don’t think they were aware of what I was
doing, and if they were they didn’t make it known to me that they were
concerned. I had one incident at night where some guys in a big black
car got out and told me to get off the street with my camera. I think it
might have been for my protection, that they didn’t want a foreigner to
be accosted and his stuff stolen. When I first got to Georgia, I got
robbed by a policeman — he stopped our taxi and wouldn’t let us go
until I gave him some money. There’s a lot of that kind of thing. The
other thing that was worrisome was that during the big demonstrations,
the kids would get all worked up to the point where they were screaming
and jumping in front of the camera. Then they would start pulling on me
and pulling on my camera and my back, and they wouldn’t go away. At
these big demonstrations all the rules go away. The parents are banging
on cars and stopping traffic and burning tires, so the kids go a little
bit wild.
iW: How do you feel about what AES is doing?
Devlin: Really, the movie just wants to observe. I tried to avoid making
too many judgments. One of the goals was to keep my opinions out of it,
whether or not that’s a good idea. I’m basically a tourist. My opinions
are not necessarily as interesting as what the people think, and what
AES thinks about what they’re doing. I think AES went in there a little
bit naive, and they went in to make money, obviously. Their mandate was
a little bit broader than most corporations. I started learning about
their corporate values, which are unusual. Some people don’t believe
that they’re true, but they do profess to have the values of fairness,
social responsibility, etc. I think that at least the top guys are
sincere about that. Whether or not those values get implemented on the
ground is another matter. But they try their best to make it work. They
were a little naive and got a little overextended.
I think that the movie illustrates how difficult that kind of enterprise
can be and how the current model for privatization is perhaps not
working. It’s a really graphic example of why the frenzy to privatize
may need to be rethought. That’s the lesson that AES has learned, at
least that’s what they told me. We go into these markets and think we’ll
bring our values, our structures and our organization to this culture
and just drop it on top of them and expect it to work, and they’re
realizing that it doesn’t work. People have to realize that it’s more
complicated than that, and I think the movie illustrates that. Hopefully
that will motivate people to start searching for a better model.
iW: There’s a note at the end about Enron that really makes it clear how
much what happens here affects the rest of the world.
Devlin: That’s true. The Enron scandal pulled the rug out and sort of
ruined Georgia’s chances for a good electrical supply. Isn’t that
amazing? That’s just one instance. Think about the repercussions for all
these different things interacting all over the world. It’s just crazy.
iW: How was the process finding financial backing and distribution?
Devlin: Well financial backing, prior to completion, was utterly
impossible to find. I tried all the usual suspects as far as foundations
and grants go.
iW: It’s not a very sexy premise, you have to admit.
Devlin: Right. “So I’m examining the electricity sector in the Soviet
Republic of Georgia.” “What are you, nuts? You think we’re gonna pay for
that?” You really can’t have faith that it’s going to work on any level
until after its execution. I think, unfortunately, I seem to be
attracted to those projects. My last picture was “Slam Nation,” which
was about performance poetry. Some people would rather shoot themselves
in the head than watch 90 minutes of poetry. But once you see the movie,
it’s compelling — it’s like “Spellbound” and has that competition and
suspense and a lot of egos.
The same challenge happened with “Power Trip”: how are we going to make
this entertaining? How am I going to make people sit through 85 minutes
about electricity? The key is to make it really about other things. It’s
about the struggle to build a new nation. It’s about the culture clash
of these crazy Americans meeting these crazy Georgians. It’s about what
it means not to have electricity and the emotion that’s attached to
that. We don’t understand that. I think as people see the movie they
realize how that is true and how good they have it, and what it would
mean to them if suddenly someone took it away. I think if you focus on
those elements, it makes it more compelling and entertaining. I would
like to say that documentaries should be entertaining. So we have a
little cartoon element [an animated segment from Georgian television
that satirizes AES executives]. We have the old humorous commercials AES
did. We tried to add all those elements in to break up the story,
because there’s a lot of information to absorb.
A contractor for American multi-national AES assesses how to remove
countless illegal lines that are used to steal electricity by residents
of Tbilisi, former Soviet Republic of Georgia, as seen in “Power Trip.”
Photo Credit: Paul Devlin.