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Remembering Producer and Doc Society Co-Founder Jess Search, 1969 – 2023

A 54-year-old woman with short dark hair, a purple suit and white shirt holding a microphone on a dark stage.Jess Search (Photo: Doc Society)

Jess Search, an extraordinary and impactful documentary producer and executive, died Monday in London of brain cancer. She was 54.

Search began her career in 1998 as a founder of Shooting People, the London-based site connecting thousands of filmmakers and crew, and then at UK’s Channel Four, where she was a documentary commissioning editor. From there she founded the BritDoc Foundation, which then became the nonprofit Doc Society. As Doc Society’s co-founder and also chief executive, her vision led to a diverse set of initiatives that includes funding non-fiction films by UK filmmakers as well as, more specifically, supporting films addressing the crisis in democracy, climate, migration and LGBTQ+ rights. Among the dozens of films executive produced by Search and supported by Doc Society, or Britdoc, its precursor, are Dirty Wars, Virunga, Who is Dayani Crystal, Welcome to Chechnya, Risk and The Yes Men Fix the World.

But Doc Society’s focus on elements of non-fiction filmmaking outside of funding, such as ethics, safety and sustainability, speak additionally to Search’s astute, expansive understanding of the ways documentaries are produced today and the non-fiction community’s needs and challenges. Indeed, a focus on networks and connections are the throughline across her career going back to her work with Shooting People.

Search was diagnosed with brain cancer just this past June, and before her passing penned a letter, “No Time Like the Present,” to the documentary community. She linked to a Doc Society party playlist while announcing her illness (“Today I am sharing that I’m currently under the care of a neurosurgeon because like 300,000 others every year around the world, I’ve been diagnosed with a brain tumour”) and the organization’s future plans:

I’m stepping back from Doc Society — after 18 years of nonstop creative collaboration, dedicated craft, joyous partying and fierce camaraderie. You may know that for years six women directors – Beadie, Maxyne, Megha, Sandra, Shanida, and myself – have been leading the organisation in a flat power-sharing model. So I can do this, knowing that someone else will step in to be unfeasibly late for meetings and break the printer constantly.

She went on to outline what will be the organization’s goals in the future:

To deal with the climate crisis and realise a just transition, the world needs more democracy; the negotiation of a new social contract between people and the state. Doc Society is centring all we have learned in narrative strategy over the past two decades to help address these two critical and intertwined issues.

Announcing her passing yesterday, Doc Society captured Search’s indomitable spirit as well as her iconoclastic flair:

Jess lived fully these last few weeks. In characteristic humour, she responded to her diagnosis by considering herself a ‘Lucky Fucker’, having lived a life of purpose on her own terms.

She continued to send late-night voice memos, order rounds of margaritas, and bring together an amalgam of global comrades around the shared mission of vital system-shifting narrative work to change the world for the better.

To the horror of some, she did all this while sporting a pair of hot pink Crocs, with socks and jibbitz, in glorious contrast to her trademark white suit she rocked at Good Pitches all over the world.

Upon news of her passing, filmmakers and industry have shared memories of working with Search. On Twitter, director Lucy Walker beautifully recounted a relationship that stretched back to their teenage years and ended with mention of someone who didn’t know of her diagnosis being helped by Search in just the last month. Director Olly Lambert described Search as “a nuclear powerhouse of a woman, simply incomparable for her strength, passion, fearlessness and wicked sense of humour. Hard to overstate what she brought to the world of documentaries and the lives of us she changed.” Matt Dentler, former SXSW Film director and currently at Apple Original Films, described Search as “a beacon of light, a Pied Piper for the traveling circus of documentary lovers. The first one on the dance floor and the last one at the dinner party.”

Wrote BFI CEO Ben Roberts, “‘I think Jess would be anti-tributes but invoking her rebel spirit we honour her legacy regardless. What a remarkable human who did so much to champion truth and justice through storytelling. I’ve rarely witnessed someone so utterly dedicated to her work – and the same is true of her comrades at Doc Society, whose incredible work will continue and we’re proud to support at the BFI.”

In conversations I’ve had with filmmakers today, Search is remembered not only for the specifics of her professional achievements but also for the warmth and, yes, style, with which she accomplished them. Any filmmaker who had the good fortune to be introduced by her at a forum like Good Pitch or CPH:FORUM remembers the power of her enthusiastic engagement. In her bio on the site of Shooting People, the organization she founded, she’s asked to cite directors she loves, and her response is indicative of her generous professional approach to the field: “I’m a producer, I love you all.”

In the letter Search sent out earlier this summer, she quotes the words of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — words that accompanied her in her final weeks — and it seems fitting to remember her by posting them here.

In the end, what would you gain from everlasting remembrance? Absolutely nothing. So what is left worth living for? This alone: justice in thought, goodness in action, speech that cannot deceive, and a disposition glad of whatever comes.

Filmmaker extends our condolences to Search’s partner, Beadie Finzi, their children Ella and Ben, and all her friends.

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