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Unplugged

Light comedy at its darkest: An energy crisis illuminated

Maybe most video journalism is so logy because of all the gear TV crews lug around just to capture brainless soundbites. Manhattanite Paul Devlin, by contrast, took his mini-DV camera to the Caucasus Mountains and came back with an inspired tale of how an entire country became unplugged and unglued. By trade an editor of network sports footage, Devlin was previously known for the urban-poetry documentary SlamNation (1998). A nation is slammed in Devlin's new Power Trip—the end of the Soviet empire literally meant lights out for the Republic of Georgia.

Homeland of Stalin and hemmed in by hot spots like Chechnya and Turkey, Georgia was ripped apart by civil war and corruption after the Soviet Union started disintegrating in the late '80s. A few years ago, giant multinational corporation AES, based in Virginia but scooping up power plants and electricity customers across the globe, purchased most of Georgia's sickly power system from the government and started sending out bills and shutting off electricity to customers who didn't pay them. In the Soviet era, Georgians hadn't had to pay for power, so you can imagine their outrage when their monthly electric bills suddenly went from zero to more than their monthly income. With a comic eye for the absurd, Devlin tells the story, set mostly in 2001, of powerless Georgia, in large part through the travails of his college pal Piers Lewis, a globetrotter who landed there and went to work for AES.

This is power reporting, but the story's the thing, and with the help of native music both traditional and modern, Devlin generates a whole lot more funk than, say, a Frontline documentary. His restless camera caresses Georgia's gorgeous mountains and striking architecture and he gives the same loving treatment to grape-stomping, cheese-making, street rioting, and yarn-spinning. There's no foreshadowing, so we feel overtaken by events the way the Georgians were. Like the best documentaries, this one raises questions instead of providing pat answers.

If only Devlin had taken his intrepid reporting a few steps further. AES's CEO and co-founder, Dennis Bakke, talks for the camera about being a "steward" for electricity, not profits. Don't believe it. Power Trip doesn't tell you that Bakke was the 312th richest person in the world when this film was shot, or that his real goal in life is to be a Christian crusader. AES churned up a cash flow of billions of dollars from hapless targets of privatization like Georgia, and in 2001 alone, transferred $4 million into a Bakke foundation that vigorously proselytized non-Christians worldwide. But you can forgive Devlin this slight case of credulity. He's a good storyteller. He should stay home next year to shoot the Republican National Convention.

 
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