Jess Search

Source: Lauren Colchamiro

Jess Search

Tributes have been pouring in from across the international film and TV industry to Jess Search, who died on Monday, July 31 aged 54.

Doc Society co-founder and CEO Search was a much-loved figure in both the documentary and wider industry.

Screen has collected a range of tributes, below. Please feel free to add further tributes, with your name where possible, via the comments section at the bottom of this page.

Cath Le Couteur, co-founder/CEO, Shooting People

The nub of Jess and my friendship was that we loved film, we loved the process of filmmaking and cared about it deeply, but most of all we loved having fun. We were terrible influences on each other. Nothing was too crazy of an idea. One person’s idea simply meant YES and how could that idea then be elevated, stretched, made more impactful, or just more *fun*.

When we started Shooting People, we each had other jobs and ran it for free from our bedrooms for several years. We had friends in tech, and were piggy packing all kinds of other corporate servers secretly for free. Everything was stuck together with sticky tape, but it was clear that an online community across the UK, that could collaborate together on independent films, get them made and seen, was wanted and needed. And the community grew rapidly - entirely through word of mouth. We tried to get funding from the film establishment (The Film Council at the time) to shore it up, but were turned down. They didn’t think what we were doing made any sense. Finally, we each borrowed £5,000 from our nans, took out a bank loan as well, and then launched a low cost member subscription in 2001 so that we could grow it and introduce new ideas.

Fun was always a big part of Shooting People. We were each other’s wingmen. Jess’ spirit of ‘no idea is ever impossible’ matched mine of ‘how do we kick down that door’. We described our relationship together as a bromance. Egging each other on all the time. And deliberately trying to come up with the impossible, just to see how the other could solve it.

In 2005, we’d been screening a bunch of brilliant home-grown shorts to local London audiences and wondered how we could get those films out around the UK. But to local communities. To spread the love of independent film.

We had no money, so we pitched the idea of a Mobile Cinema to filmmakers who’s worked we’d screened. The Blaine Brothers had a mate with a van. So we thought ahh, it’s a Mobile Cinema Van (which we ended up painting bright yellow in SP colours) that could travel the UK with these eight short films, and a projector. Wherever people were in the UK, they could call and request the films to be screened with them. A website was set up, with just a phone number and a daily update of where the Van was last seen. The Blaine Brothers and two other filmmakers committed to the challenge. Jess was absolutely convinced that someone in every audience each night would also offer accommodation if asked.

And they did.

And that was always the case with Jess. Anyone in her presence felt confident enough to pursue any idea. At any time. It just needed the hard work of perseverance and a bucket load of appreciation of having fun while doing it.

In the end, the Mobile Cinema broke down several times.. but people up and down the country opened their doors, shacks, pubs, band rehearsal rooms, warehouses and gardens. They showed the films in around 20 places, including a women’s artists colony in Portsmouth, as a support act for a Celtic-reggae fusion band called Paddy Rasta, and on a laptop in the foyer of a UCI cinema in Bedford. The biggest audience was 400. The smallest was 2 (an elderly couple in Chichester).

That kind of idea was one of so many that Jess would drive at Shooting People, with the simple aim of connecting people through the power of cinema. She loved film, in particular documentaries. And she loved people. And she had the most delirious appreciation, more than anyone I know, of how important it was to also have fun.

Joanna Natasegara, producer, Violet Films (The Edge Of Democracy, Virunga)

To say Jess was the best of us is not enough. She was the brightest, the most committed; the most generous, the most fun; the biggest advocate; the best friend, the first and last phone call.

She believed documentaries could change the world and she spent much of her life, lifting up others and proving her thesis. She always knew the whole was greater than the sum of its parts and relentlessly fought for filmmakers and the causes she supported with everything she had.

Literally coining the phrase impact producer, Jess no less than revolutionised the world of documentaries training countless people and producing hundreds of films; inspiring the golden age of social justice films that have been seen on every continent.

I can’t even begin to quantify the impact that she was a part of and yet her presence in the world was totally grounded and tangible. She sat in our edits, she strategised campaigns, she fed us, hugged our dogs and held our babies. We cried together, danced together, laughed always, debated often. She cheered us on and celebrated our successes and losses professional and personal, as if they were her own. She was fierce but only ever in service of others.

All of this majesty was carried with an incredible lightness of being, a joyful, curious but always kind, boundless love. There are thousands across the world thinking about the giant Jess shaped hole left behind in their lives today. I loved her so much and will never be the same without her but will forever carry her spirit with me and am endlessly, endlessly proud to have been her friend.

Laura Poitras, director (Citizenfour)

I remember the first time I encountered Jess in 2010 - she stopped me in my tracks. And then she took me under her wing; a wing I share with hundreds of filmmakers across the planet.

Jess was allergic to hierarchies, especially the white male variety, and she relished taking them on. Her stories were delicious. She was always the smartest and most fabulous person in the room, and also the most generous and fun. When Jess went in, she went all in. For the UK release of Citizenfour – which Jess, Beadie and BritDoc orchestrated in hostile circumstances – they drove through London late at night with Trevor Paglen and projected top secret GCHQ codenames on Parliament. Provocative and beautiful.

Jess was a builder. A builder of communities, infrastructures (material and immaterial), and imaginations. She fought and loved hard – for friends, for justice, and always and forever, for Beadie and their children. I am so grateful I had the privilege to know and journey with her.

Jessica Edwards, head of cultural development at Nesta; formerly director of impact and partnerships at Doc Society

Documentary film rock star. Professional north star. Jess shone so brightly, her brilliance inspired umpteen emergent and established filmmakers over the years. In poignant tributes shared on social media over the last few days, I’ve been particularly struck by the sheer number that acknowledge Jess as the central pivot upon which their career developed. Quick to spot talent and generous to enable it, she championed projects no one else believed in and went out of her way to give so many people a chance.   

Thanks to Jess are award-winning documentaries and filmmakers whose careers have bloomed. But also, through her encouragement to embark on a road less travelled, is the much-needed creation of innovative funding models, visionary strategies to reach audiences and new ground being broken in the change-making possibilities that storytelling provides.   

Jess, thank you for your brilliance, your generosity, your fearlessness. Your excellent suits, your mischievous sense of fun. For giving so many of us ‘that’ opportunity, for shining a light and showing us the path. What an inspiration to have worked with and what an extraordinary legacy you leave. It’s up to us now - but how very much you will be missed.

Jamie Campbell, Joel Wilson, founders/creative directors, Eleven

We owe our careers to Jess, who bought the first film we made, in the year 2001. She then commissioned our next three programmes, all experimental and un-commercial, but Jess backed them to the hilt. She helped us buy our first camera equipment. She funded our first feature doc. She taught us to be courageous, and instilled in us the belief that we could change the world. She was utterly fearless, fiercely intelligent, and incredibly compassionate and empathetic. She improved the lives of many, many people.

Without her we would never have had the confidence to set up a company, or to believe so strongly in the power of narrative as a force for good. She was our mentor and our hero. We are heartbroken that she is gone; but in awe of the style with which she left. Full of wisdom, humility and inspiration. Modern legend.

Vinay Shukla, director (While We Watched)

Jess met everyone with the spirit of a backpacker at a hostel - open, excited, and her pockets full of weird rockets. She’d share everything with you right away - resources, money, book recommendations (she was always reading!), gossip, connections - she’d sneak you into parties and laugh with you at breakfast the next morning with some head of state sitting across from you.

She and her colleagues at Doc Society were like an open clinic. Their hallway invariably full with individuals in distress - people faced with political persecution, financial hardships, legal challenges, imploding film units – Doc Society nourished everyone back to good health. And when they couldn’t, Jess paused her life and sat there with your hand in hers. She built a system of care around filmmakers in far off lands.

And then she moved on. Just like she has now. Doc Society is at its strongest today but the people who knew her are at a loss. Nobody I know is doing okay. And why should we be? Jess is gone.

jess search

Source: Sundance Film Festival London/Joanne Davidson

Jess Search

David Courier, former senior programmer, Sundance Film Festival

I first met Jess and Beadie many decades ago at the Sheffield Doc Festival where she and the BritDoc team were manning a pop up bar that they created. Jess called out to me and said “Hey Sundance, you wanna drink?” I did. And that started a friendship that spanned decades where Jess opened her huge heart, her amazing mind, her wicked sense of humor and even her home to me. She connected the dots between me and so many talented documentary filmmakers across the globe whose lives were changed because their film premiered at Sundance. She was a whirlwind that lifted us all.

I’m not sure I can speak for all the doc filmmakers, but I can speak for myself and for Sundance. We were, we are better because we were lucky enough to have crossed paths with the force of nature named Jess Search. I find it poetic that her last name is Search because she was always searching on how best to make an impact, how to unearth the vision of filmmakers whose voices needed to be heard. My world, the world is a better place because she was here. I can’t believe she’s gone.

Sushmit Ghosh, director (Writing With Fire)

Jess was a master strategist, she came to it with the kind of energy that knew how to galvanise and make the unlikeliest of people huddle around a table. We met Jess for the first time at a party in Sheffield where she owned the floor, incandescent in a white suit. Early next morning we had a meeting with her on strategy. She was the same both on the dance floor and a strategy session - mischievous and provocative, confident and defiant, rooted and unmoored, brave but also stubbornly committed to the cause of having fun while doing this important system shifting work.

Rintu Thomas, director (Writing With Fire)

In our industry, there are several baked in systemic inequities and door-keeping that obfuscate international filmmakers from accessing critical resources. Jess led the movement of not just changing but tearing down these systems and rebuilding with care. This re-imagination is what makes her work monumental. In a particularly challenging time for us, Jess was rock solid in seeing us through the tough winds - both with her wisdom and her wit, with a sparkle of prose and poetry. With her around, you knew the labyrinth will have that one door that she will find the key to. Deep pain in the loss of someone so truly wonderful and whose purposeful work is poised to live on.

Mia Bays, director, BFI Film Fund; James Weddup, senior manager for operations, partners and projects, BFI

Jess has been an exceptional partner, collaborator and critical friend for us at the BFI Filmmaking Fund. Her intellectual rigour was matched only by her wicked sense of fun; her radicalism coursed through all her work including the BFI Doc Society Fund and the many projects it has supported. The creative communities that Jess and her colleagues at Doc Society have built are already picking up the baton to continue Jess’s recent work to fight the climate crisis and heal our democracies. Her legacy will be lasting, and we will feel her loss for a long time, but have every faith that everyone touched by Jess’ energy will continue to manifest it for a long time to come.

Ben Roberts, CEO, BFI

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 are proud to support at the BFI. Love to Beadie, and her family and friends. I last saw Jess at Margate Pride, dancing into the night surrounded by queer friends and filmmakers and that’s how I’ll remember her.

Lucy Walker, director (Waste Land)

She may as well have worn a cape. She was there for so many of us when we most needed her, the moments where you really needed someone to save your life, she never let me down. And so many people! A lot of private and not successful people she championed. She championed so many underdogs - because she loved them. She knew their potential because she’d once been the underdog and she was determined not to be a perpetrator of the cruelty that she was subjected to. She was the lifeline and the rock and the saviour of so many wonderful people. Margate was the underdog she loved. She had to move out of East London when it wasn’t the underdog anymore. She knew how good she was at lifting people up and she gave that gift so generously.

I keep thinking about the sheer style with which she exited the stage: it was a mic drop.

From being ostracized at school, to the outpouring of love at this news, she had taken hate and transmuted it into love. Taken being downtrodden and used that experience to drive her lifting others up.

She showed us the way. She showed me. I feel so inspired by her. And I am such a lucky fucker, as she would say, to have had the joy of so much time with her over so many years. I feel more inspired by her gifts than broken by her loss. She taught me how to live and was there for me when I needed it but I’ve got it now, and I’m fine now, as she kept saying even right at the end after her diagnosis. I’m fine now and I just want to get back to the work of increasing justice, reducing suffering for others.

Her life is the stuff of legend.