It had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood premiere: Excited crowds, a giant screen, even a red carpet.
But the high-octane, big budget film making its debut at the Barthélemy Boganda stadium in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), recently wasn’t the latest episode in a star-studded action movie franchise.
Instead, the more than 10,000 people packing the stadium’s concrete seats had come to see a lavish piece of Russian propaganda: “Tourist,” a movie glorifying the mission of so-called “military instructors” in CAR, dubbed into Songo, a local language.
Yet there is much more to this movie than loud explosions, big guns, and beautiful shots of the African jungle. It neatly encapsulates how the various strands of Russian influence across the African continent have — somewhat bizarrely — come together.
As extensively reported by CNN, these Russian “military instructors” are actually part of the Wagner group of mercenaries, a secretive military contractor thought to be connected to — and financed by — Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch so close to the Kremlin that he is known as President Vladimir Putin’s “chef.”
CAR has been one of the main theaters for Wagner’s soldiers of fortune. It is rich with natural resources, and politically unstable. Rebel groups have been vying with President Faustin Archange-Touadera and his government for control since elections last December.
“Tourist” opens with a flashback of Russian mercenaries coming under heavy attack from a group of Central African rebels.
The rebels are depicted as a rag-tag band of bandits, emerging from the bush on motorcycles to shoot the local population and pillage police stations. In stark contrast, the Russians are shown as the defenders of the nation; outnumbered but valiantly fighting on against all odds.
After a classic war movie opening, the rebels appear victorious: The protagonist of the film, known only by his call sign, “Tourist,” is seen lying on the ground, blood gushing from his mouth, seemingly gravely wounded.
The action then rewinds a few days, giving viewers a rose-tinted portrayal of the Russians’ work in CAR, repelling rebel attacks, alongside their partners in the local military, and thwarting their plan to storm Bangui and return former President Francois Bozize to office.
The Russian characters take digs at other Western powers in CAR throughout, with one of the mercenaries saying: “Americans say they fight for democracy; Russians fight for justice.”
The Russian “instructors” are supposed to be in CAR for training purposes, rather than frontline combat, though they appear to do far more fighting than training.
That reflects the situation in the real world: The international community knows the mercenaries may be doing some training, but they are also heavily involved in combat operations.
An action-packed war movie, “Tourist” has managed to turn itself from the stuff of fiction into a film based on a true story.
We see troops arriving on a Russian Airforce Ilyushin II-76 at Bangui’s M’Poko airport and are given to understand that the “instructors” have been rotated in and out of the country on multiple occasions.
Russia’s air force has been delivering weapons shipments and groups of “instructors” since January 2018 — with the permission of the UN, who waived an arms embargo on the country.
Recently, the spokesperson for the CAR government confirmed that a further 300 Russian military instructors were now in country, in their “bilateral capacity.”
And then there’s a tall, muscle-bound, shaven-headed instructor, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Dmitry Utkin, Wagner’s founder, and a close associate of Prigozhin. Utkin is subject to US sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
The identity of the financial backers behind “Tourist” is as opaque as those behind the Wagner group itself. The website for the movie provides no details as to who funded it, simply stating that “Tourist Film Group” holds the copyright.
But the opening credits of the movie include a reference to a studio called “Paritet Media.” Prigozhin’s wife, Lyubov Prigozhina, was listed as the owner of a company called “Paritet,” according to a St Petersburg based investigative newspaper, Fontaka.ru.
The Russian independent news outlet — based in Latvia and recently branded a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin — spoke to three people connected to the film who all said Prigozhin had financed the movie, in what one of the interviewees said was an effort to “whitewash Wagner’s image.”
A further clue hinting at Prigozhin’s involvement with “Tourist” is the appearance of Seth Wiredu. Wiredu was named by CNN in an investigation into a Russian troll factory operating out of Accra, Ghana in 2020.
In “Tourist,” Wiredu, who previously lived in Russia and spoke Russian, according to several of his employees, plays a priest who wants to bring former President Bozize back to power.
The appearance of Wiredu in a Prigozhin-linked movie about Wagner cannot be a coincidence. Indeed, it appears to be blatant trolling — a middle finger to the West.
Glorifying ‘military instructors’
Off screen, the connections between the Kremlin, Prigozhin, Wagner and “Tourist” deepen further.
On that Friday evening in Bangui, standing on a small platform beneath the giant screen stood Maxim Shugaley. A well-known political strategist with links to the Kremlin, Shugaley works for a Russian organization called The Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC).
Shugaley and his interpreter Samer Sueifan were arrested in Libya in 2019 for political meddling and for meeting with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country’s former ruler Muammar Gaddafi. They were released in December 2020; shortly afterwards a film — called “Shugaley” — was made about their time in a Libyan jail, it was followed by “Shugaley 2.”
Both movies appear on the FZNC website; their artwork, trailers and even titles appear similar to “Tourist”.
According to reports in Prigozhin-linked media outlet RIA FAN, Shugaley told the crowd in Bangui: “I wanted to convey to the people of the CAR that there is no religious animosity in the world, there are bandits who use people’s faith to justify their crimes … the movie ‘Tourist’ will help your country come together, unite and not fight against each other.”
“Tourist” appears to be — at least in part — a much-needed attempt to improve the perception of Wagner mercenaries in CAR.
A recent UN report said Russian mercenaries had committed human rights abuses in CAR, alongside government forces, as they repelled rebel groups — something Valery Zakharov, CAR’s National Security adviser has denied.
But the movie also has a dual purpose: Glorifying the work of these “military instructors” to a domestic Russian audience. The film made its debut on Russian TV on May 19, five days after the Bangui premiere.
“The Tourist” may have immortalized the work of Wagner forever, but that title is fooling no one — this movie has about as much to do with tourism as the visit of two Russians accused of a nerve agent attack to Salisbury Cathedral.