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. Prigozhin
has denied any links to Wagner, but he too has been sanctioned by the US for funding the Internet Research Agency that meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
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.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.”
Per an accompanying synopsis of the film:
“Tourist” is a film about political intrigue, chases and shootings, about the fight against terrorists – even if they threaten not your home and not even your country. A dramatic and dynamic action movie about people who are ready at the cost of their lives to protect the legal order and the lives of civilians of the Central African Republic – simply because they cannot indifferently watch how innocent people are dying.
U.N. peacekeepers recently accused mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group of “grave human rights abuses,” ranging from “attacks on humanitarian actors” to “mass summary executions,” in support of CAR president Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s efforts to quash rebel forces. (Click here for the Guardian’s broad-context reporting on Russia’s activities in CAR.)
The trailer omits another important detail: the film is seemingly owned/funded by Wagner’s titular head Yevgevy Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s Cook.” That’s according to domain information for the film’s promotional website, whose registrant is identified as “Aurum, LLC.”
Update, May 19, 2021: Aurum is also listed as copyright holder in the film’s end credits, per this screenshot:
Aurum is a film company founded by Prigozhin in 2017. The company’s previous titles include Shugaley and Shugaley 2, which claim to tell the true story of Russian political operative Maxim Shugaley, depicted in both films as an innocent sociologist. Per our reporting, the films were part of a year-long Russian propaganda campaign that sought to free Shugaley from a Libyan prison, where he was detained in May 2019 on espionage charges (he was eventually freed last December and currently runs a U.S.-sanctioned think tank that recently sent operatives to CAR).
The promotional site for Tourist seeks to put a similar spin on Russia’s involvement in CAR, describing the film as “a story told by ordinary people.”
While the site does not mask its association with Prigozhin or the Russian government (which is included in a list of acknowledgements), it does keep its distance from Wagner and, in turn, any alleged human rights abuses it may have committed. For example, the site’s only mention of Wagner comes from a brief excerpt of a Russian news report, which states that the film’s poster was designed by an unnamed “28-year-old girl from Vladivostok” who publishes “popular posters on the theme of PMC Wagner” on social media using the pseudonym “Merry Fox.”
It’s unclear if Fox exists and her Instagram page, currently set to “private,” has zero followers. But here’s a sample of her Wagner fan art:
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. 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.