The struggle against tyranny as seen by Mike Lerner in The Accidental President
BY Yako Molhov
Today, May 9, is a defining date for societies in CEE as it draw a clear line between the past and the future. Some, still choose to celebrate what the Kremlin calls Victory Day, while the majority mark The Day of Europe which stands for cooperation, solidarity, and lasting peace on the continent, and even more so in its Eastern part, as it is again facing a new threat from its former occupiers which have already taken hold of Belarus and a part of Ukraine in 10 years of war.

On this day, we are publishing our interview with Mike Lerner in which he talks in detail about his latest documentary feature The Accidental President, distributed by All3Media International. The film made its debut recently at the One World Festival in Prague and the International Documentary Film Festival Artdocfest/Riga. In this interview with Yako Molhov, Mike Lerner talks about the key messages of the political documentary and how it will help people to understand the threat posed by “Putin’s poodle” as a proxy of Russia’s war against the free world.
Mike Lerner
Mike, The Accidental President follows the story of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was a candidate in the 2020 presidential election against Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka (the English transliteration of the Belarusian original of Alexander Lukashenko) and who is considered the real winner in the elections. How was the idea about the movie born and how long did it take to produce it?
After hearing news reports of the 2020 Belarusian presidential election as well as the campaign of three women united in standing against the tyranny of Lukashenka, I rushed to cooperate with journalists and film makers embedded in Minsk.

The film’s production lasted from spring 2020 until February 2024 to completion. The team was embedded with Sviatlana for 3 years.

The Accidental President chronicles Sviatlana’s journey from primary school teacher to de facto head of state. How did you manage to get such unprecedented access to her and her team?
I met with Sviatlana in Vilnius. She had just arrived having escaped the post-election crackdown. Lithuania offered sanctuary for her and her children.

She was giving interviews to the World’s press and when it came to my turn I said, “I am a not here to do a short interview but to ask whether we can stay with you, film your work here as it progresses?” She said she’d think about it and after a few days Sviatlana and her team gave me access.

Does The Accidental President focus mainly on Tsikhanouskaya and her husband Sergei's political struggle against Lukashenka or it includes other people's stories as well?
The film focuses on Sviatlana and her Chief of Staff, Franak Viačorka. The Belarusian digital partisan, Raman Pratasevich also features.

Son of famous opposition activist, Vincuk Viačorka, Franak was born to oppose the regime. He is a dynamic thinker and even at such a young age and incredible fighter for freedom and democracy in Belarus.

Raman Pratasevich is one of many diaspora Belarusians who wanted to work for change in his homeland. He gathered a team of young digital partisans who worked tirelessly to counter KGB propaganda and also to stay on step ahead the regime.

Have you also investigated Lukashenka's ties to Vladimir Putin and his involvement in the war in Ukraine as well?
Without Putin, Lukashenka and his brutal regime would have fallen years ago. The Belarusian economy has been bled dry and ruined by Lukashenka’s kleptocracy. It is sustained on Russian loans.

The price? Putin pulls the strings. When Putin wanted to start his war against Ukraine, he started it from Belarus. When he wanted to threaten the West with further destabilisation, he relocated some nuclear capability to Belarus.

Without Lukashenka handover the sovereignty of Belarus to Moscow, the war may well not have unfolded as it has.

Belarus is a landlocked aircraft carrier for Russian.

Lukashenka is Putin’s poodle.

Svetlana in Washington DC

What were the main challenges when shooting the movie and where was it shot? Did you manage to film in Belarus as well?
In Belarus, around the time of campaigning and elections there were risks to the freelance film makers I was collaborating with.

Embedded with Sviatlana and the team meant that risk was everywhere due to Lukashenka’s fury at being constantly exposed for the usurper that he is.

Sviatlana is subject to very high level of personal security - the Lithuanian government is extremely efficient in this matter - and on foreign trips too, she is very well protected.

Our main problem was always the threat of sudden and impulsive reaction from the regime in Minsk.

The film is shot mainly in Belarus and Lithuania but we also travelled to film her in Ireland, Poland, USA, France and the UK.

The film was selected for the 4th International Documentary Film Festival Artdocfest/Riga; The Accidental President was also selected as part of the Czech Republic’s One World Festival. What has been the feedback so far?
The week of the screening of ArtDoc Fest a bomb was thrown at “The Museum of the Occupation” in Riga. Sometimes it is easy to forget that there are many, many Kremlin assets in the Baltic countries and beyond. No-one was hurt and our hosts at the festival shrugged off this potentially lethal event. They don’t want the “Soviet Union 2.0” in their lives, they suffered enough from Russia’s deadly attentions in the past and they’ll never ever accept a return to those dark days.

The film was really well received in Riga. Audiences reacted to the human story as well as political story, it was wonderful to sit in the auditorium with them and feel them engage so profoundly.

In Prague the audiences were also superb. Our biggest screening coincided with an official visit by Sviatlana and Franak. We were lucky to have them with us and as the curtain fell, Sviatlana stood and received a long and rapturous standing ovation that lasted. When you see the film, you’ll understand why.

After Prague, someone spoke to me and said, “they’ll be watching this film to learn what’s happening in Belarus for the next 100 years”.

Throughout your career you have been nominated for an Academy Award and two Primetime Emmy awards. Your filmography includes movies on various subjects and focusing on controversial figures from around the world. How do you usually choose the subjects for your next projects?
I like to think we make films that no one else would be mad enough to make. I like to think we choose stories before anyone else has even heard of them. I like to think we give voice to those who would otherwise not be heard. We champion those with courage and determination to fight for justice. We side with the oppressed and Roast Beef’s films are a mark of solidarity with our characters. We like to get up in the morning with the ambition of annoying the right people. I believe the character IS the story. We are incredibly privileged and lucky to do what we do. We believe in justice FOR ALL.

How will your film help people to understand the problematics with Belarus, which is now supposedly also a nuclear power and Lukashenka is talking about preparation for war?
This film will help people to understand that “Putin’s Poodle” is a risk, and has been for decades, to the peace and stability of Europe and the World beyond.

More importantly it shines a light onto this terrible regime. Sviatlana, Franak and the team represent honesty, hope as well as the pursuit of freedom and justice. They campaign tirelessly to keep the political prisoners crowded into Lukashenka’s jails, at the top of the agenda.

But is not only high profile prisoners like Sviatlana’s husband Siarhei, Maria Kalesnikava, her incredible running mate in 2020 and Ales Bialiatski, the Nobel Prize-winning Human Rights activist but Sviatlana also has a mission to draw attention to the plight of those masses of ordinary Belarusians who are suffering in prisons.

You say that “Lukashenka is talking about the preparation for war”, and yet he is NOT the president. He lost the election; he destroyed the evidence before holding his own fake inauguration behind closed doors.

It’s time for all of us to stand up and put an end to his cruelty and terror.

The Accidental President is a record of the struggle against tyranny and the price paid by a new generation of Belarusians who refuse to accept it anymore.

As Sviatlana - a woman who never set out to be in politics - says in the film, “What would you do for love?”
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