German film director Stefan Tolz. (DF Watch.)

TBILISI, DFWatch–“Full Speed Westward” (Vollgas gen Westen) – this is the title of a new movie by German film director Stefan Tolz. 

The movie opened in Georgia a few months ago and was well received. It is a documentary about Georgian reality, which shows the situation in recent years through use of symbols and by other means, and features important moments in Mikheil Saakashvili’s government and after the change of government in 2012.

The film’s main protagonist – the director himself – travels in an old Soviet car of the brand Volga and meets with President Saakashvili, Bidzina Ivanishvili, Kutaisi’s Metropolitan Kalistrate , a car engineer and others. All of them have their own idea about how the country should be governed in the future. The film ends with a symbolical phrase by which director says that ‘ the European won’t leave the people in Asia alone’.

The director, who has known Georgia for more than 20 years, recently faced bureaucratic obstacles when trying to obtain permanent residency in Georgia. DF Watch spoke with him about these problems, and also about Georgian mentality and other issues.

Stefan Tolz: Georgian mentality is sometimes difficult to cope with for foreigners living in Georgia. I believe that foreigners always remain guests to Georgians. They are expected to come here, stay for some time and then leave. This is the attitude of Georgians towards non-Georgians and due to such an attitude, foreigners who live in Georgia for many years, who do business here or are involved in other activities, have problems.

If foreigners come here as guests, they do everything for them and it’s perfect. But when they start to live here, the environment changes. Even long-term neighbors keep calling them‚ ‘ucxoeli’ (foreigners) and you never become part of society here. I think this is a really important issue.

A main idea of EU has been that people of different societies can live peacefully together and create a common future. Of course, every country retains its ethnic identities, but the EU countries work on creating a multi-cultural European society. I believe, this is an important factor of being European. In America, the situation is a little different, as many Americans aren’t really interested in what happens elsewhere and don’t connect the events in the world to their own lives.

In Georgia, which is a part of Europe, I feel people’s attitude still differs quite a bit from European attitudes, and foreigners living here can feel this every day. That’s why there have developed parallel communities in Georgia. For example a German ex-pat community, where the Germans stay among themselves.

I have some German friends in Georgia, who have been living here for a long time, but don’t feel to have real Georgian friends. They gather separately somewhere in a club or a bar. So these people prefer to be where everyone is equal, and not among Georgians, where they become ‘ucxoelebi’. I think it is really difficult to live in this environment for a long time. When I think of where I want to live in the long run, I always think if I really want to stay in a country where I am always being looked at as‚ ‘ucxoeli’.

DFWatch: Is this a problem of Georgian mentality or because most Georgians don’t know a foreign language and have communication problems?

ST: This is a true point, but the interesting thing is that if someone from a post-Soviet country comes to Georgia, Georgians don’t perceive these people as foreigners, but still have the notion that these ‘foreigners’ are ‘our people’. Just recently, I met a friend who told me that a guest he had wasn’t a foreigner, but a Russian.

Of course, there is a language barrier. This problem exists in Germany as well, when people coming there don’t know German. But when foreigners keep living in Germany they don’t remain foreigners in German language terms. We call them “ausländische Mitbürger” (members of society from abroad) or “Deutsche mit Migrationshintergrund” (Germans with a migration background) if they have a German passport. This means that they are accepted as part of the society they live in and I really hope this attitude will also develop in Georgia with time.

DFW: Does this attitude interfere with your work, or it is just uncomfortable to live here?

ST: In fact, it becomes a source of other problems. For example, recently I was invited to a dinner and they were looking for a Tamada [head of Georgian feast] and they didn’t even think about picking me as Tamada, because I am a foreigner and they didn’t even ask. In fact, I became Tamada that day, and they were astonished, telling me afterwards: how do you know how to be Tamada so well, when you are a foreigner?

This is a funny story, but the problems may be more complicated. New visa regulations will come into force from September. New rules for foreigners have been established, who want to live in the country. They now need to get official residency papers. Embassies already urged their citizens to get their documents in order before September.

So by a private initiative Germans, Austrians and Swiss people who live in Georgia met one evening in a restaurant with representatives of the Georgian ministries of the Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs. The room was filled with people interested in the new regulations. Everyone had questions to ask, because from September Europeans without a special visa/permit will only be allowed to live here for three months within a period of six months. Now, look at my situtation: I have my apartment here, which I bought during the time of Mikheil Saakashvili’s government, when Europeans and Americans were welcomed to stay and invest in Georgia. Now it turns out that I only have a right to live here for three months. Where I should go the other three months? Live in Europe? This means I must rent some place there and have two apartments, which is not affordable for me. So I needed to apply for official residency status.

It seems, of course, these new visa regulations are a requirement by the EU, because if you become an associated country, they don’t want that the access to this country is too easy.But it is very important that people, who do good and important things for Georgia, have an opportunity to stay here.

DFW: What problems are you having right now, and are they common for other foreigners?

ST: I’ve been related to Georgia for about 24 years and live here periodically. Six years ago, I purchased this apartment and I have lived here legally since then, because during the previous government, I could legally stay in Georgia for 360 days a year. I am out of the country quite often – and our film company is based in Germany – but I sometimes stay here for more than 90 days. Foreigners who have a job contract in Georgia can easily get a residence permit, but I have no job contract, living here as a freelance film director. What was I suposed to do?

I thought it was only my problem, but a few days ago a woman called me and told me that she has the same problem. And at this restaurant meeting with the officials of the ministries many people appeared to have similar problems. For example, there was a retired man from Germany, who lives in a Georgian village, making his own wine, with no work contract. Or a woman artist, who has bought an apartment in Tbilisi, but doesn’t have permanent work she can prove to the authorities.

So there are foreigners living here, who do not have permanent work, but they have houses here and they do important things for Georgia. Won’t they be able to get the right to live here? When we asked this question, the representatives of the ministries present, apologized saying that they had had a difficult day and that they don’t have an answer yet, but that every case would be checked carefully. But the point is: it seemed that the ministry representatives didn’t really understand our problems.

Of course, everything cannot be squeezed into law, but if those who make decisions cannot understand our problems, how will they be able to evaluate our cases carefully and give us the right to live here?

DFW: Even though you are well-known here, you still face problems. What do you think is the reason?

ST: I brought every necessary document to the House of Justice, when I applied for my permanent residency. For example notary document for the price of my apartment. As far as I read the regulations, it is like this: If a foreigner invests GEL 100,000 or more in Georgia, he has a right to residency. My apartment costs more than that, and so I handed in the notary contract. They told me it wasn’t enough and I needed a document from audit. Conducting an audit for an appartment costs up to USD 500, which means I might have to spend USD 500 for a single document. Nevertheless I got this audit paper and took it back to the House of Justice. They told me that the company which conducted the audit is registered in the public registry, but they still need a document that the company had the right to conduct the audit. I went back to the audit company and told them about it. They got surprised, as the public registry had online information about their certificate, but they still required me to bring the copy of this certificate. So this is what I did.

I had also proof of enough money on my Georgian bank account. This is obligatory, as a foreigner living in Georgia must have a couple of thousand dollars on his or her bank account as a guarantee that they have enough money to live here. At the meeting in the restaurant, the foreigners told the officials that they had accounts in their own countries and quite large amounts of money there. But the answer of the officials was that we must have accounts in a Georgian bank and also if you have one million euros on an account at Deutsche Bank, it still means that you are poor.

A third hurdle for foreigners are the recommendantions: you also need handed in three recommendations. I had recommendations from the head of National Cinema Center, the National Scientific Library and a well-known Cinema Company. So three recommendations of respected institutions – and according to the regulations their recommendations should have been enough.

So, in the end, I had proved my property with an audit, I have an account in a Georgian bank with enough cash to live, three recommendations of respected institutions and six years of permanently living in Georgia. I was told a the House of Justice that everything was OK now. But five days later I got an SMS that my case had errors. When I called them they said that they couldn’t give me residency, because the recommendations I had weren’t enough and they needed a recommendation from three businessmen or a recommendation from a member of the government. I asked them who they would consider a member of government – does it have to be a minister or can it be a deputy minister. They didn’t know, but then called me back that a deputy minister would be fine. Then I asked a deputy minister to give a recommendation and I got a promise. The next day, I got a call from the House of Justice again with the new information, that a deputy minister’s recommendation would not be enough. So I wrote a letters to four ministers, among which were [Foreign Minister] Panjikidze and [Justice Minister] Tsulukiani. I wrote to four ministries, because I didn’t know who was in Georgia at that time. In the end I was helped by officials from the Minstry of Defense and Defense Minister Alasania gave me the recommendation I needed.

I don’t know why this happened. This person might not have liked my film and just wanted to give me a hard time, or maybe someone was waiting for a bribe? I don’t know, but the fact is that there remain some questions.

DFW: Did you try to obtain Georgian citizenship?

S.T.: No, because then I would lose my German citizenship. That’s why I never thought about it. I want to have the opportunity to live here and the regulations make this possible, but it depends obviously on somebody within the system whether I will be granted residency or not.

DFW: Do you see other problems for foreigners, for example within your profession in the film business?

ST: I am preparing a movie here with a well-established Georgian team about a fantastic soda drink, linked to the real history of the famous soda shop of Mitropane Laghidze on Rustaveli boulevard. I want this to be a Georgian movie, as the whole story about the soda shop of Laghidze is a cultural heritage of the country. So Georgia should get the credits for it. But financing the film here in Georgia proves to be very difficult. But if Germany invests the main amount of money, legally this will become a German film, though the story has nothing to do with Germany. The film is Georgian, the history is Georgian, the actors will be Georgian, the whole shoot will be in Georgia. But there is one problem: me. “This man is German, a foreigner, and we cannot give him money” – according to the rules of the Georgian National Film Center (GNFC), for applying for funding as a Georgian film, the director must be Georgian. So I am not even eligible to apply for funding. In Europe this is different: Quite a few Georgian directors get funding for their films by German or French film funds – for example directors like Dito Tsintsadze, who lives in Berlin. He “counts” as part of German society and therefore can get German funding. But here in Georgia, I am not perceived as a part of this society. So I experience laws and rules, which are obstacles for my life and work here, and I really hope this will change.

DFW: So how do you connect your experience with Georgia’s path towards Europe?

ST: When I see the efforts by Georgian politicians to make Georgia part of the European family, I am asking myself sometimes whether Georgian society is ready for the experiment to join the difficult task to create a European democracy. Having political parties and free elections is not enough. One of the tasks for Georgian society is that people should learn to value the minorities living in Georgia – be it minorties because of political views, ethnic background, religious beliefs or sexual orientation or because they come from a different country. So far, foreigners are accepted as guests – but I hope that soon they will also be welcome as an important part of Georgian society.

After this interview, Stefan Tolz was granted permanent residency by Georgian authorities after presenting a recommendation by a minister.