Icarus, a film that was executive produced by Spence alumna Maiken Baird ’85, P’24, about the Russian Olympic doping scandal, has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Maiken was in Los Angeles, watching the Oscars with classmate Mitie Tucker ’85 as the envelope for Best Documentary was opened to reveal her film had won.
“I was jumping around the room,” Maiken said. “I’ve never been so happy. I was really, really happy, and I still am. It’s really an amazing experience.”
Maiken got involved in Icarus through producer Dan Cogan, who called her to sell her on the movie. They met in Brooklyn, and Maiken watched a rough cut of the documentary, which impressed her.
“Where do I sign?” Maiken recalled saying without hesitation.
In addition to the investment in the movie, Maiken—who is a producer and director herself—was also involved creatively; she was sent the cuts from the editing suite and she and Cogan provided feedback to the director of the film, Bryan Fogel.
The documentary, which premiered at Sundance and is distributed by Netflix, started as an experiment in which Fogel takes performance-enhancing drugs and sees if he can go undetected in drug-testing. However, the movie takes a turn after the Russian scientist Fogel has been working with, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, then director of Russia’s national anti-doping laboratory, helps expose that Russia has a state-sponsored Olympic doping program. Rodchenkov admits that in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he and his team helped replace Russian athletes’ tainted urine with clean samples. Fogel and Rodchenkov go to The New York Times and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) with this information, and eventually WADA confirms the story and Rodchenkov is put in protective custody because of his whistleblower status.
“I think this film will have an enormous impact one way or another on doping in professional sports,” Maiken said. She noted that she thinks the documentary won the Academy Award because of the topical subject and the major discovery that was made while filming.
Through this film, Maiken said she learned more about the vast extent of doping worldwide. She was also reminded of how making documentaries can be more gripping than making fiction films, in that each person on the team gets fully immersed in tasks and wears many different hats.
“I also think that documentaries, in a lot of ways, can be more interesting and shocking than fiction—the whole idea of ‘truth is stranger than fiction,’” she said. “If a screenwriter had come up with a plot like what went on in the doping scandal, you’d have a hard time believing it. It made it really exciting to be a part of this project, where real life had almost the pace and stakes of an action thriller.”
After Maiken graduated from Spence, she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from Columbia University and her master’s in international relations and political science. Before turning to the film industry, she worked at the United Nations in New York, the European Union in Brussels and the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. Maiken said she believes her degrees and experience in international relations guided her to be interested in the world and its stories. Rather than work in a bureaucracy, she decided she wanted to work with films that could teach people about something interesting in the world that they didn’t know about before.
In addition to Icarus, Maiken also executive produced City of Ghosts, a documentary about Syrian journalists who report on ISIS; this film was shortlisted for an Academy Award in 2017 as well and premiered at Sundance. Maiken also directed and produced a documentary called Venus and Serena, which followed the tennis stars for nine months in 2011, and she also produced Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, another Academy Award-shortlisted movie. Maiken was also instrumental in creating The Spence School’s 125th anniversary film in 2017, honoring the legacy of her alma mater. One of the movies she is working on now is an untitled project on Roger Ailes and the birth of Fox News.
“I want to make interesting films that expose audiences—and myself—to the stories that shape our world and our history, and that help us understand the people behind these stories—what motivates them,” Maiken said. “That’s why I do what I do, but the truth is, winning an Oscar is also just freaking amazing.”