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.
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.”
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).
“Tourist” appears to be — at least in part — a much-needed attempt to improve the perception of Wagner mercenaries in CAR.