I've been thinking a lot about Jess Search these past 10 days. As I know many of my friends and colleagues have been too.
I was very honoured (and intimidated!) to be asked to write the Guardian’s obituary for Jess– thanks to the editors there for guiding me to this final result which I hope captures Jess’s work well.
In the process of talking to so many of her friends, family and colleagues in preparing to write that piece, I realized we were never going to capture all of Jess in 1,000 words. I think most people can’t be summed up in 1,000 words and for Jess you’d need a million words – so I also wanted to offer a few more personal notes about Jess here.
I learned some new sides to Jess while researching her obituary, such as:
Her family remembered Jess having political leanings at an early age. Her aunt Gay Search remembers taking nine-year-old Jess to London so she could flick two fingers at Margaret Thatcher’s residence in Downing Street. I can picture it!
At Oxford, she took her PPE studies seriously but found time to create a funny and feminist campus newsletter called Bogsheet that was plastered all over toilet stalls; she organised all-night frisbee matches; and she recruited people to vote in campus elections (mostly so she could attempt to keep them from electing a young Boris Johnson to Oxford Union).
She was also very active in her community in Margate, where she and her wife Beadie set up a residents’ association and personally helped out elderly neighbours (WHEN did they find the time?). When Jess and Beadie got married in Margate in 2018, the wedding culminated with their guests marching in the Margate Pride parade (they were also big supporters of Margate Pride).
Despite so many work commitments, she was also all-in on family life with Beadie and their two kids, Ella and Ben. She loved her gaming so seriously she once auditioned for Hamlet within Grand Theft Auto (!).
Jess didn’t see life as work time and free time - it all melded into one and she did everything with gusto. She prioritized space for fun and silliness: mixing cocktails at legendary Britdoc parties (Park City police once shut them down when Peaches performed an impromptu set at a house party), dancing in colourful wigs and costumes (she even donned a gorilla mask at the very serious Skoll World Forum panel and was famous for her outfits at the True/False parade), playing board games like Pandemic and Catan.
Parties weren’t afterthoughts, she told me during her LFF masterclass (see full link below) – Jess said, “Parties are actually completely at the centre of it, great festivals, great gatherings, great convenings -- places we can come together and exchange ideas, and feel good and put down for a second the burden of doing this work. Just kickback with each other and remember what it is that we're all trying to build and achieve together. So yes, parties are important.”
In this whirlwind of a busy life, friends and filmmakers all marvel at how Jess gave each of them devoted one-on-one attention -- making them each feel like the centre of the universe. Social media tributes this week from filmmakers and friends were filled with phrases like “force of nature,” “whirlwind,” “rockstar” “badass” and even “saint.” Some people said Jess was the most remarkable person they ever met, and I think I might have to agree (I did meet Oprah once but we never had margaritas together).
One festival friend said that Jess had such balls that she nicknamed her Jessticle – of course Jess loved this so much she had a name badge made.
There was always time for kindness. I got told again and again by filmmakers that Jess would be the one who volunteered to stay up all night with them in the edit room on day of the Sundance submission deadline – EVEN WHEN SHE WASN’T OFFICIALLY WORKING ON THAT PARTICULAR FILM.
She was often said to be the smartest person in the room, but also the one with the biggest smile and the most powerful hugs. I’m awestruck at how she might have been the busiest person in the world but she made TIME – real connected time -- for so, so, so many people. Friends, colleagues, family, filmmakers – how did she make space for so many of us in her head and her hours?
In her last weeks of life, still wearing her beloved hot pink Crocs, she continued to pitch for funding, to go to screenings, to drink too many margaritas, to go on stage with Peaches, to invite friends and family to a toga party and screening of Animal House. Her deep sense of mischief wasn’t abated.
Typical of Jess, she didn’t want a fund named in her honour but would rather her community continue to back the work of Doc Society.
As a moderator at the Skoll World Forum in April 2023 – before her diagnosis -- she quoted one of her favourite Marcus Aurelius sayings from 2000 years ago: “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.”
In the past 10 days since we lost her, I’ve found myself thinking, What Would Jess Do? on numerous occasions (and it was THAT notion that inspired me to just jump into the daunting task of writing her obituary – Jess herself would have said, “Wendy, fuck it, try it!” I hope that we all keep a bit of that “What Would Jess Do?” mentality - or get up and boogie for a one minute disco in her honour every now and again.
Jess didn’t have bitterness about her diagnosis and instead said at the end that she was still a “Lucky Fucker” because she had lived a life of purpose on her own terms. She hadn’t wasted a minute.
I was so chuffed to be asked to moderate Jess’ Spotlight Conversation at BFI London Film Festival 2021 – it was rare to get her to talk about her own work for an hour! I think this captures a lot of Jess’ passion and spirit and sense of humour (and her kindness, bringing her moderator a gift on stage, WHO does that!?)
Here’s some of her magic on stage at the Skoll World Forum – you can see her absolute charisma and impeccable sense of style too.
The excellent New York Times obituary that talked to some of her great collaborators – I loved the quote from the filmmaker who spoke about how she read him poetry on their Zoom calls.
Lots of friends and colleagues paid tribute at ScreenDaily as well
Myles Dyer, a filmmaker who attended Good Pitch and knew Jess, offered this tribute online
Tributes at Televisual
Tributes at The Arts Newsletter
Jess’ letter about her diagnosis – including a link to Love & Rockets playlist on Spotify
Photo credit: Lauren Colchamiro