Jess Search obituary: Doc Society founder and tireless champion of independent documentary

As founder of both Doc Society and the networking organisation Shooting People, Search was a vital force in nurturing documentary filmmaking in the UK.

15 August 2023

By Charlotte Cook

Jess Search © Photo by Lauren Colchamiro. Courtesy of Doc Society

To call Jess Search, who died aged 54 on 31 July, only a producer or an executive would be a great disservice to what she created in independent documentary. A force to be reckoned with, she was an industry trailblazer who built and fostered movements, created systemic and societal change, fostered vital spaces, emboldened communities, and fiercely supported films and filmmakers in equal measure.

Born in Hampshire, Jess grew up in Kent and studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University. Her first professional role came as the assistant to her uncle, the pathbreaking Black executive Tony Laryea, at his company Catalyst Television. Laryea was pivotal in the creation of Open Doors, the BBC’s first platform for marginalised groups, a series free from editorial intervention which gave the participants, members of the public, full editorial control. Much of this approach and ethos can be found in the work Jess prioritised throughout her career.

She went on to join Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department, a unit driven by radical experimentation rather than ratings. She credited this experience with changing her life, and in 1998, while working there, externally founded the networking organisation Shooting People with co-founder Cath Le Couteur and 60 filmmaker friends. To this day, Shooting People is the largest online network of its kind in the world, creating a place for anyone working in independent film to find and learn from each other. 

After an increasingly risk-averse Channel 4 closed the Independent Film and Video Department in 2004, Jess led a small cohort of the team and smartly negotiated an exit deal that included funding they could use to build a new organisation that would champion the work they loved, and address the problems they saw in the field and beyond. A year later, BritDoc (now Doc Society) was born. 

The first foundation for documentary to exist in Britain, and still the only one of its kind and scale to support independent documentary, Doc Society has funded and executive produced over 520 independent film teams from 75 countries, regranting $20 million and counting to filmmakers. In 2017, it became the BFI’s delegate partner to run the BFI Documentary Film Fund, which saw an investment earlier this year of $7 million in funding

Across its myriad activities, this constantly evolving organisation has always embodied Search’s spirit, being driven by the concept of change, impassioned dedication to the independent space, and a firm commitment to joy, mischief and damn good parties. Far more than a behind-the-scenes figure, Jess brought her irresistible charisma to public events, including as a frequent host and moderator of Good Pitch, a Doc Society live event that now exists across 15 countries, bringing people together to support – and create effective impact around – social justice documentaries. Rocking a succession of suits in multiple colours, she commanded a room and brought her infectious sense of fun to the precious space Good Pitch created. She’d be seen encouraging attendees to join a one-minute disco, a mainstay of the event. 

This unique ability to combine support, community building and fun found many forms, few more ingenious than when Doc Society would take over a bar during Sheffield Doc Fest and enlist members of the industry to work behind the bar. Documentarians would emerge from the underground location bleary-eyed at 5am and have to quickly pull themselves together for various meetings and panels they had to take part in that day. Fortunately the people they were meeting were often emerging from the same event. One party held by Doc Society at the Sundance Film Festival remains legendary for a raucous surreptitious live set by Peaches, curtailed by the police.

Jess supported other organisations and people working in the field as fiercely as she did her own, mentoring and encouraging countless emerging documentary workers, producers, activists and friends. In recent years she served on the boards of Kickstarter and the think tank Institute for Public Policy Research, and was a trustee of Marie Stopes International, where her mother had worked. Ever in cahoots with her wife, Beadie Finzi, Jess formed a residents association for their community in the seaside town of Margate, and the pair were loyal supporters of the Margate Pride festival.

Through it all, she had an ability to be laser-focused on pushing forward the most serious and pressing issues of our times. But she did so with humour and a sense of mischief that could win over resistance. Her passion and resolve were catching. Jess and Beadie regularly opened their home for guests, where a casual chat with Jess about what needed to be changed in the field might be followed by the first draft of a manifesto for fixing the problem landing in your inbox before you’d even got home. 

Jess was dedicated to improving independent documentary, and society at large. She did one hell of a job, and we’re all better off for the world she built.

  • Jess Search, 15 May 1969 to 31 July 2023

Charlotte Cook is co-founder and executive producer at Field of Vision.

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