Jess Search, a Force in the Documentary Genre, Dies at 54

Jess Search, a producer on dozens of important documentaries and a catalyst on many more as one of the directors of Doc Society, a nonprofit organization she helped found in 2005 that supports documentary filmmakers, died on July 31 in London. She was 54.

Doc Society said in a statement that the death, in a hospital, was caused by brain cancer. Search had announced last month that she was stepping away from the organization because of her illness.

Search had been a central figure in the documentary scene in Britain and beyond for years. She was gender nonconforming (she used the pronouns “she” and “her” but preferred not to use the gendered courtesy title Ms.), and she had a special interest in promoting work by filmmakers from underrepresented populations or that dealt with out-of-the-mainstream subjects.

She was a producer or executive producer on some of those films, like Matthew Barbato’s “Alexis Arquette: She’s My Brother” (2007), about a sex reassignment surgery, and Agniia Galdanova’s “Queendom,” which was released earlier this year and is about a queer Russian performance artist.

Her family and colleagues said she was even more devoted to her work at Doc Society, which she led with several other directors and which describes itself as “committed to enabling great documentary films and connecting them to audiences globally.” Since its founding, it has backed hundreds of documentary projects, supporting emerging filmmakers financially and with expert input.

“Jess was a builder,” Laura Poitras, director of the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” (2014), about Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who leaked classified information, said by email. “A builder of communities, infrastructures (material and immaterial), and imaginations.”

That film had support from Doc Society, which at the time was called the Britdoc Foundation. (The name changed in 2017 to better reflect the organization’s global focus.) So did “While We Watched” (2022), about the travails of independent television journalism in India, on which Search is credited as an executive producer. Vinay Shukla, its director, called Search “ragingly courageous and resolutely funny.”

“It was an impossible film,” he said by email, “and I’d wake up to find new holes in our boat everyday. I would spin and spiral. And then I’d get on a call with Jess and everything would be all right. She would read me poems over Zoom while figuring out my legal strategy. She was always 10 steps ahead.”

Tabitha Jackson, who was director of the documentary film program at the Sundance Institute for years and was the Sundance Film Festival director from 2020 to 2022, said Search invigorated the entire genre.

“In her championing of the field of independent film, and the art of impact and the impact of art, Jess often said that ‘If you are going to move people to act, first you have to move them,’” she said by email, “and that was apparent in the many independent films she was deeply involved in.”

“But beyond individual films,” she added, “her strategic laser focus and abundant kinetic energy evangelized and galvanized a collective that could turn a moment into a movement and a challenge into an opportunity for transformation.”

Jess Search was born on May 15, 1969, in Waterlooville, England, near Portsmouth, to Phil and Henrietta Search. She grew up in Sevenoaks, southeast of London, and attended Tonbridge Grammar School before earning a bachelor’s degree in politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University. In 2008 she added a master’s degree from Cass (now Bayes) Business School.

In an interview at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival, Search said she had no particular career aspirations after earning her undergraduate degree but chose her path for an unusual reason.

“I knew I was gender nonconforming,” she said, “and at that time, leaving university at the very beginning of the ’90s, I knew that I couldn’t work anywhere that had any kind of formal or informal dress code.”

Being a lawyer or management consultant was out, she said, “because I’ll have to turn up every day wearing clothes I don’t want to wear.”

“So,” she added, “I was like, ‘I think I’d better go into the media,’ because that seemed like a space where it was less formal.”

An uncle working in television hired her as his assistant. That led to a job as a commissioning editor for independent film and video at Britain’s Channel 4, which at the time was programming a wide variety of documentaries. In the BFI interview, she expressed a particular fondness for “the Box,” a cardboard box where unsolicited films and ideas for films were collected.

“This box was full of amazing, crazy stuff that people just sent in to us,” she recalled in the interview. The channel programmed mainstream documentaries as well, she said, but the Box provided “that sense that anything might happen, that anything might be in there, and you might hear from anyone around the world with something to say.”

In 1998 Search was one of the founders of Shooting People, a networking organization for people in the documentary world. In late 2004 Channel 4 shut down its independent film and video department, prompting her and others to start what became Doc Society.

Search is survived by her wife, the producer and director Beadie Finzi, and their children, Ella Wilson and Ben Wilson.

The outpouring of tributes to Search on social media and elsewhere after her death included a statement from Joanna Natasegara, an Oscar-winning producer who had worked with her.

“She believed documentaries could change the world,” she said, “and she spent much of her life lifting up others and proving her thesis.”

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