The influential British film producer Jess Search, the co-founder and chief executive of The Doc Society and the architect of scores of films by visual artists, has died of brain cancer at the age of 54.
Search died in London on Monday 31 July surrounded by her family, her partner, Beadie Finzi, and their children, Ella and Ben. Search died six weeks after being diagnosed with a brain tumour.
After Search’s death was made public, figures from across the art, film and broadcast industries paid tribute to her contribution to hundreds of documentary films, including many films directed by visual artists or exploring themes of visual art.
Search co-founded Doc Society in London in 2005, alongside five other women. The organisation has since co-produced, helped to develop or secured funding for 520 films from 75 countries.
Search made her illness public on 6 July, revealing that she had been diagnosed with a brain tumour that necessitated her retirement from her role at Doc Society. In the course of the statement, Search said she was “extremely calm and have literally everything I need”. Reflecting on her life, she characteristically described herself as a “lucky fucker”.
In a statement released on 1 August, The Doc Society’s current leadership — Megha Agrawal Sood, Shanida Scotland, Sandra Whipham and Maxyne Franklin — described Search as a “fierce supporter of independent artists.”
“Jess lived fully these last few weeks,” the statement read. “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.”
In a statement, the Tribeca Film Festival described Search as “a leading figure in the documentary world and a beacon of support for so many filmmakers.”
Eugene Hernandez, the artistic director of the Sundance Film Festival, said: “Jess Search is a rock star. Larger than life itself. So big. Her impact on indie and documentary film — indelible.”
Search began her career at Channel 4, working as a commissioning editor in the broadcaster’s documentary department. She founded the Britdoc Foundation in 2005 before later rebranding the organisation as The Doc Society.
Search, a queer woman working in a notoriously patriarchal industry, recognised the need for better representation in front and behind the camera. A hallmark of The Doc Society was its early commitment to diversity and inclusivity in film before the movements became popularised by the mainstream studios.
Recent art films championed by Search include the Emmy-nominated Welcome to Chechnya, about a community of LGBTQ and queer activists and artists in Russia who sought refuge abroad amid the so-called ‘gay purge’ that spread through the Chechnya region during the past decade.
Search was also central to the creation of An Intermission, a film made by a group of homeless teenagers in Stoke-on-Trent who worked with the British artist Edwin Mingard, a 2022 Bloomberg New Contemporaries recipient, and Another Kind of Paradise, a film by the recent Royal College of Art graduate Isabel Morales Bondy about the artistic practice of a prodigiously talented teenage asylum seeker after fleeing Taliban rule in Afghanistan for a life in the UK.
In film, Search’s credits include Cow, an art film about the life of a dairy cow, made by the British artist and filmmaker Andrea Arnold; The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s film about the 2011 Arab Spring protests in Tahrir Square, Cairo; and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, a film about the US whistleblower Edward Snowden, by Laura Poitras. Poitras’s next film, All The Beauty And The Bloodshed (2022), followed the US photographer Nan Goldin’s campaign against the Sackler family’s philanthropic donations to cultural institutions.
The British Film Institute’s chief executive officer Ben Roberts, said: “I think Jess would be anti-tributes, but, by 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.”
Justine Simons, London’s deputy mayor for culture and creative industries, described Search as: “A meteor blazing through the world. Energising everyone in her path and building a more just future for us all. Thank you for all the joyous dancing.”