In July, an intriguing movie trailer began rapidly gathering views on YouTube.
The one-minute clip is a preview of Solntsepyok, which roughly translates as Sunbaked, a Russian film that depicts life in Luhansk, a city in eastern Ukraine, in the summer of 2014.
It gives little away: A family drinks a toast over a sumptuous meal, a man in military fatigues walks through the city center, a car swerves on a dirt-path beside a cornfield.
But an attached description of the film makes clear what the trailer doesn't: that something calamitous will happen to the characters on-screen. "Events will totally transform the lives of many people," it reads. "Who will be broken by the new reality, and who will remain a human being until the end?"
The cryptic trailer has since gathered a whopping 3.3 million views -- presumably due in part to reports about the movie's powerful alleged patron: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the businessman known as "Putin's chef" for his catering business and close ties to the Kremlin.
According to the independent news outlet Meduza, which quoted several unnamed sources close to Prigozhin as saying the entrepreneur funded the project, Sunbaked will premier on August 18 on NTV, a major Russian channel linked to the state through its owner, natural-gas giant Gazprom. It is the fifth movie financed by Prigozhin, the outlet reported.
And though the trailer is free of blood, gore, and mercenary action, Meduza said that it features scenes from what is Prigozhin's second project profiling the role of the Vagner Group, a shadowy private military company that he reportedly funds, in supporting the Kremlin-backed separatists fighting against Kyiv's forces in a swath of eastern Ukraine known as the Donbas.
The war between Ukraine and the separatists who hold parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions has killed more than 13,000 people since it erupted in April 2014 and continues to defy international mediation efforts.
"It seems they decided to...show the public a romanticized, propagandistic version of themselves," Meduza quoted an unnamed source previously involved in shooting films allegedly financed by Prigozhin as saying.
If such movies serve as positive propaganda for the mercenaries, it's a public relations boost they may desperately need. Numerous Russian and Western journalists have recently shed light on human rights violations allegedly carried out by Vagner Group fighters in countries including Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Mozambique, and especially the Central African Republic (C.A.R.).
In C.A.R., Russia has helped President Faustin Archange Touadera combat rebel groups in the resource-rich country's ongoing civil war, including fielding Russian mercenaries and security details for government figures. In 2018, Touadera's government signed a formal contract with Vagner to train the national military and help battle an insurgency that erupted five years earlier.
Investigations by several journalistic outlets suggest that movies like Sunbaked are part of a strategy by Prigozhin -- who has consistency denied connections to Vagner -- to counter Western media reports about Russian mercenary operations abroad.
In May, NTV aired The Tourist, a film set in C.A.R. that features a group of Russian military trainers sent to bolster the professionalism of beleaguered government security forces until they're caught up in an attempted coup on the eve of a presidential election.
Asked in May about Prigozhin's involvement in the filming of The Tourist, Sergei Vorobyov, who worked on the set in C.A.R. as a stuntman, asserted that he did not know whether Prigozhin was behind that movie.
"Look, we are actors. We don't ask unnecessary questions -- especially there," he told Meduza, referring to the filming location in Africa. "We arrived, we worked, and we left. No one told me whose money funded [the movie]. I can only say it was a big honor for me to work on this project."
But the new trailer for Sunbaked made the rounds not only because of the rumors swirling around the film. It was shared widely on pro-Kremlin social-media channels and online media projects that parrot the government line, including RIA FAN, an outlet reportedly connected to Prigozhin.
Without explanation, Prigozhin's press service claimed to Meduza that neither it nor the businessman himself knows whether he funded the film. "Yevgeny Viktorovich [Prigozhin] has no information about whether he financed the shooting of Sunbaked," it told Meduza, in typically coy and cryptic style.
The press service said that Sergei Shcheglov, the film's producer, thanked the film's "initiator" for the idea, adding, "Whether that was a reference to Yevgeny Viktorovich, we don't know."