CNN  — 

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.

Central African Army (FACA) troops march alongside their Russian trainers at Berengo, once the palace of former CAR President Jean-Bédel Bokassa. More recently these recruits have been fighting to repel rebel attacks across the country.

Rose-tinted portrayal

“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.

Posters across Bangui are reminiscent of old Soviet propaganda. The posters read: "Central African Republic is hand in hand with Russia" and "talk a little, work a lot."

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.