From Russia with love: the making of a modern propaganda movie

About half an hour into Touriste, an action movie set in the Central African Republic, the head of the army briefs the country’s president about an imminent rebel attack.

Benjamin Wagba, who plays the army chief, speaks for only 23 seconds. But the role changed his life. “It was such an experience!” he says of appearing in the biggest film ever produced in his country. Still, when I ask him to tell me more about the character he played, he turns skittish. “In the film, I was, I was . . . really, really, I’m touched,” he stammers, smiling broadly. “But, I don’t know, it’s just very complicated for me.”

Here is what Wagba does not — cannot — say: Touriste is a Russian propaganda movie that glorifies the deeds of the Wagner Group, the real-world private military organisation whose mercenaries have fought in Ukraine, the Middle East and Africa. Western analysts and academics believe Wagner is an unofficial foreign policy tool of the Kremlin, its soldiers deploying to regions where Russia wants to extend its influence, defend existing interests or antagonise the west. The Kremlin denies this and does not acknowledge the existence of Wagner.

As Moscow has taken an increasingly aggressive stance towards Ukraine, the film — a YouTube version of which has 7.6 million views — offers a bizarre, mind-bending window into Russia’s shape-shifting influence in the world. The film rights are owned by Aurum, a company founded by the businessman Evgeny Prigozhin, whom the US and the EU accuse of financing Wagner. Prigozhin, a catering magnate and ally of President Vladimir Putin who is sometimes known as “Putin’s chef”, has long denied any connection to the group.

Touriste portrays Russian mercenaries as selfless heroes saving a poor African country. Its plot at times hews closely to reality (Russian fighters agree to train the CAR army and then battle alongside them against brutal rebel groups) while at others conveniently distorting it (the rebels alone are depicted doing things — indiscriminate killing, torture, bullying the UN — that the mercenaries themselves are accused of by the EU and human rights groups).

The existence of the film is all the more strange because it tells a story of military intervention that, officially, Russia and the CAR fiercely deny. When I interview the CAR prime minister Henri-Marie Dondra in his Bangui office, surrounded by a dozen aides and two camera crews, he tells me that there are no mercenaries in his country. “You are the one who is talking about private companies,” he says. “I have not seen any private companies with which the country has signed a contract.”

In late September 2021, I spend a week in the capital, Bangui. Diplomats, opposition politicians and foreign officials tell me the mercenaries have been waging a brutal campaign across the country alongside the CAR army, focusing on gaining control of its many diamond- and gold-rich areas and targeting the ethnic Fulani and Muslim population. I talk to some of Wagner’s alleged victims in the city’s Muslim quarter: men and women who’ve fled rape, torture and killings in every corner of the country. The most common refrain I hear about the mercenaries is: “They have no rules.” The accusations are well known, their presence is obvious but as one young activist put it, “There’s really a kind of grey fog around them.”

Wagba says he can’t talk about what he calls “the politics” of Touriste. Instead, as we sit on the terrace of a Bangui hotel, he tells me about the experience of making the film. He marvelled at the wardrobe department — “hundreds of military uniforms!” — and the scale of the production. “We only saw one camera in my scene; it was only after, when we saw the film, that we realised how many they had.”

Talking about the craft he has practised for two-thirds of his 45 years, Wagba is like a Shakespearean stage actor. Expressive and voluble, his voice is a rough growl that sometimes runs high and lonesome. Of his first role, at 15, playing a witch in a play by the CAR’s most celebrated writer, Etienne Goyemide, he says: “A baptism — a baptism of fire.” Each syllable lands like a hammer blow. “I was so young! I had no idea what I was getting into. But anywhere you go in Bangui, you ask, who is Benjamin Wagba? They will say, he’s a witch!”

A still from a trailer for a film about Russian mercenaries. It shows soldiers unpacking kit from a truck
A still from the trailer for the action movie ‘Touriste’. It depicts Russian military instructors helping to save the Central African Republic from brutal rebels

On whether he has ever had a job outside acting: “Never, never, never!” He laughs like I am a lunatic and I feel like I might genuinely be one. “I can do theatre well, I do it well, well, super well . . . I also do cinema well, so well. Other than that, I don’t do anything.”

But he shrinks again when we get nearer the plot of Touriste. “The politics behind it, I tell you, I am really careful about that . . . I don’t think about that,” he says. “I think only about how the movie elevated me, [and how] it was given to the population.”

Touriste was in a way given to the CAR, a landlocked, impoverished country that has been enmeshed in civil war for almost two decades. Last May, the film’s Russian producers held a massive premiere at the national stadium in Bangui, attended by government ministers, 10,000 viewers, a representative of the Russian culture ministry and a number of men linked to Wagner. The movie, mainly shot in Russian, was dubbed into the local language, Sango.

It is essentially a 1980s-style action flick. The plot is typical of the patriotic fare churned out by parts of Russia’s film industry during Putin’s rule. A young Russian police officer signs up to fly to the CAR to train soldiers amid a bloody civil war. (The movie’s title derives from his call sign, Tourist). This much is based in reality. In 2018, Russia signed an agreement with the CAR to send unarmed instructors to train the local army, which has been fighting a rebellion since 2013. Officially, the governments say that 1,135 military instructors are now in the country. But analysts, diplomats, UN and humanitarian sources say there are actually up to 3,000 combat-ready mercenaries.

The movie takes place ahead of elections in December 2020 and depicts Russian instructors being asked to take up arms by a government overwhelmed in the face of a rebel assault on Bangui. Again, this is something that happened ahead of the real-world elections of December 2020, according to diplomats, foreign officials, security sources and opposition figures in Bangui. But it is also denied by both governments.

At one point in the movie, the Russians lay landmines, which the US has accused Wagner of doing in Libya. A Russian soldier tells a villager to keep children away — something real-world mercenaries have been specifically criticised for not doing. The movie depicts the 12,000-troop UN peacekeeping mission as feckless and useless; the French as conniving neocolonialists. (These criticisms were also made in propaganda that Facebook removed in December 2020 and linked to Prigozhin, who is under US sanctions for meddling in the 2016 presidential election through the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm.)

The level of warped verisimilitude — the winking nods to Wagner, the trollish side-eye the film casts on reality — is discombobulating. This is a war movie, filmed during an actual war. Scenes were shot at Berengo Palace, the Russian instructors’ real headquarters. A key moment takes place on the terrace of a Lebanese café where I saw a Russian mercenary buy a shawarma. The president, Faustin-Archange Touadéra, is played by one of his relatives.

Does this convey the surreality of this movie? Does it adequately illustrate the funhouse mirror world of Bangui in the time of Wagner? There is a Voldemort quality to the Russian presence in the capital. They’re spoken of in hushed tones, particularly among humanitarians and diplomats, who drop their voices on the word — Russians — as though it might be cursed. At the same time, the mercenaries are everywhere I go in the city, recognisable by their flagless camo uniforms and the masks that hide the bottom half of their faces.

Faded film posters for the film ‘Touriste’ still hanging on the walls of the national stadium in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic
‘Touriste’ posters can still be found in Bangui’s national stadium. Initially popular, the film lost its shine as stories of atrocities committed by Russian mercenaries in the CAR began to surface © Clement di Roma

Old, damaged stickers hail “the support of Evgenii Prigozhin”, a businessman accused by the US and the EU of financing the Russian mercenary organisation Wagner. He denies any connection
Stickers hail “the support of Evgenii Prigozhin”, a businessman accused by the US and the EU of financing the Russian mercenary organisation Wagner. He denies any connection © Neil Munshi

One day I meet a Koran teacher from Bambari who says Russian fighters had arrested him at morning prayers with 40 others, held him for a month, tortured him and stole his life savings. That same afternoon, I see a mercenary chat amiably with a saleswoman at an electronics store and then buy an oscillating pedestal fan. One morning a foreign official tells me the mercenaries were increasingly consolidating control around CAR’s mining areas. That night, I see the head of Lobaye Invest — a Wagner-linked mining company sanctioned by the US — drinking a glass of wine at the swanky M Bar and Restaurant. On the day I interview a woman who says she feared she might have HIV after being raped by three Russian fighters, I run into mercenaries at Bangui’s artisanal craft market, aggressively haggling over leather purses and kitschy handicrafts.

In December 2021, the EU sanctioned Wagner, three related entities and eight people, including Valery Zakharov, a former Russian state security agent who has served as an adviser to the CAR’s president. Wagner is “responsible for serious human rights abuses in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Sudan and Mozambique, which include torture and extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings”, the EU said. This followed a report by UN-appointed experts last March that accused Wagner mercenaries of gross human rights abuses in the CAR.

When the FT sent Prigozhin’s catering company questions about Wagner’s operations in the CAR, it forwarded the request to Alexander Ivanov, head of Russia’s “Officers Union for International Security”, which sent the military instructors to the CAR. Ivanov said in a written response that they operate “in accordance with the bilateral agreements between” the countries and were not involved in any fighting or commercial activity. Russia’s foreign ministry echoed the sentiments in a statement to the FT. Ivanov added, “The information contained in the latest UN reports on gross violations of human rights attributed to Russian instructors does not correspond to reality.”

The mercenaries’ entire presence is wrapped in layers of irony. The CAR government doesn’t acknowledge their existence, the Kremlin doesn’t acknowledge their existence, the people purportedly behind Wagner don’t acknowledge their existence. And then there’s the movie.

Like Wagba, Mac Armel Degoto got a call one day from a friend about auditions for a movie. He was cast as François Bozizé, the former president leading the rebels to overthrow the government —the movie’s bad guy. “The Russians . . . they are pushing you to perfection,” he tells me. “I don’t even look like Bozizé, but they made me become Bozizé.”

The 35-year-old only spent a day on set, filming two short scenes. He was paid 20,000 CFA — about $35 — plus transport, an amount that still stings. But “for me, it was terrific. It’s what I always imagined”, he says. It was “a crazy thing . . . I was acting in a professional production, a real movie”.

Degoto joined the CAR’s first rap collective, Bongos Rap, at the age of 15. He still goes by his hip-hop sobriquet, Monsieur Melodie. He’s acted in a few productions, including two short films for the social security administration. Touriste was something else entirely. “The premiere was amazing. It was huge, it was such a great joy,” he says. “Kids come up to me in the market and say, ‘Bozizé, Bozizé, Bozizé, why don’t you give us some money?’ I say sure, I’m a star, but I’m a star who walks on two feet, who doesn’t have a car or even a motorcycle.”

I wonder whether he was scared to play Bozizé, CAR’s former dictator who has become a national villain for many. “No. I don’t really care about the political side. All I know is that I was playing a big role in a big movie and what impact that could have on my professional life.”

“My mom is worried,” he smiles wanly. “She asks me to avoid public places because there are people that really hate what I did . . . They will come up to me and say, ‘You are Bozizé.’ They say, ‘We know where you live, so watch out, we will find you.’”

Wagba gets it from the other side; Bozizé partisans threaten him. But he has risked his life for his craft before. Just before filming Touriste, he spent two months touring the country with a humorous sketch-show meant to educate people about the CAR’s Special Criminal Court. This entailed travelling into rebel territory to inform civilians and armed rebels about what they should do if their human rights were violated by the army or by mercenaries and how they themselves might be held accountable if they commit atrocities. “Almost everyone was hostile,” he says dryly. The reaction often involved a gun being pointed in his face.

Both Wagba and Degoto say that the constant threats meant they questioned whether making Touriste was ultimately worth it. The arc of my conversations with them mirrored the way that many Central Africans I met described their impression of the mercenaries. Initially, there was unbridled hope, then awe at their professionalism, followed by disappointment and, finally, horror.

Touriste played in Russia at 11.40pm on the state-controlled NTV network. It received little promotion and even less attention from audiences. The more I thought about it, the more the film seemed to have yet another layer of meaning. It was a metaphor for Russia’s presence in the CAR: something that meant relatively little to the Kremlin and its allies in terms of effort and investment but was everything to the Central Africans swept up in it.

On my sixth day in Bangui I go to the stadium where the premiere had been held four months before. Scores of faded Touriste posters are plastered on one section of the bleachers, along with a handful of peeling stickers that read “With the Support of Evgeny Prigozhin” in Sango above a heart-shaped Russian flag.

There is no cinema in Bangui, and the film had made a real splash. I noticed a number of people wearing Touriste T-shirts around town. Thousands had been handed out at the premiere. One young activist told me that in the weeks after, she saw children in the market playing Touriste the way they might play cops and robbers.

A few law students are studying in an upper section of the stadium, and I ask whether they’d seen the movie. Mustapha, a lanky 23-year-old, says he came to the premiere but walked out after 15 minutes, appalled by the violence. “They called so many people to come, so many young people,” he says. “You wouldn’t show it to your children, so why us? Why should we accept it?”

Mustapha, like many of the Muslims I spoke to, had relatives who’d been victims. His brother had been killed by mercenaries, he says, while travelling from Birau in the far north. He knew of Wagner’s reputation in other parts of the world. “In Syria, in Libya, where those men go in, there is no peace.” While the movie sickened him, he thought it was effective as propaganda. “So many people clapped!” he says. “We see them killing our brothers and we accept it. We clap for it!”

Still, as tales of atrocities have reached Bangui over the past year, the shine seemed to be fading. The movie itself even seemed to have done some damage to Russia’s reputation. Carl Michael Kikobet, vice-president of the country’s National Youth Council, had initially welcomed Moscow’s help. Then he saw Touriste.

“Now I refuse to even give my appreciation for the partnership with Russia,” he says, fingering a pendant in the shape of the CAR around his neck. “That movie portrayed our national army as cowards. It humiliated them.”

If the film in some ways failed as propaganda in the CAR, it’s not clear it succeeded back home either, says Jack Margolin, a programme director at Washington-based conflict analysis firm C4ADS. Margolin has a side interest in the Wagner subculture, which includes mercenary influencers and a number of other films. “It’s not clear who [it’s] made for,” he says. “Touriste in particular is pretty inaccessible to a general Russian audience, given the level of detail it contains regarding the conflict in the CAR.”

The movie may have been a flop, but the producers made another. While I was in Bangui, a source saw a Russian crew filming at the defence ministry. The walls had been adorned with the flag of Mozambique, where Wagner was soundly defeated in a fight against jihadists in 2019. As the source put it, “It’s very confusing why they’d make a movie about a battle they lost.” In late December, the film in question, Granit, premiered on NTV, according to the Moscow Times.

Two months after I left Bangui, a friend sent me pictures of a new sculpture that had been erected near the stadium. It showed Russian and CAR soldiers defending a cowering woman and two small children. Similar monuments to Wagner have cropped up in Syria and Ukraine.

The other statues are mostly a single soldier with a child hugging his legs, but the Bangui version was more elaborate. When Margolin saw the statue, he noticed something else. The figures seemed to be based on Touriste. I took a closer look. One of the Russian soldiers looks just like a secondary character in the film. One of the CAR soldiers is a dead ringer for the main female character, who was played by the niece of an opposition leader. The statue was unveiled by the president himself.

Neil Munshi is the FT’s west Africa correspondent. Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow

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