Some dream to one day compete in the Olympics. Other’s dream to write and direct a feature film. Then there’s Savanah Leaf, who accomplished both by age 30. The UK-born, Bay Area-raised director turned heads this year with her debut feature, Earth Mama, a moving, vivid portrayal of Black motherhood and structural oppression, which premiered at Sundance to near-universal acclaim.
The film follows Gia, a pregnant single mother from Oakland, as she fights to get her two young kids back from the foster care system and protect her baby on the way. “I never knew my father growing up,” Leaf explains. “In a way, this was my attempt to understand the difficulty of parenting or the reason why someone might not want to or might not be able to parent.”
Born in South London, Leaf faced housing insecurity throughout much of her childhood, her family relying on the kindness and generosity of her community in Vauxhall. “I knew everyone on the block,” she recounts, “and everyone knew me and helped raise me in different ways.” After moving to the Bay Area in middle school, Leaf found an outlet through volleyball, dominating the court on her way to earning scholarships at San Jose State and University of Miami before representing the UK at the 2012 London Olympics.
After sustaining an injury while playing professionally in Puerto Rico, Leaf began to rethink her future. The injury pushed Leaf to be still and to consider the creative outlets she was missing, “I had so many emotions, so many things I wanted to say so I started exploring film.”
While sports is now in her rearview, Leaf explains how skills she learned on the court have helped her make such a quick and successful transition into directing. “You have to create this collective push forward, and you have to see those little talents in everybody and try to pull them out of each other.” With Earth Mama, Leaf gets the most out of her cast’s performances through a masterful execution of physical storytelling. She explains, “Motherhood I think of as having so many parts to it, and one of those is someone’s relationship to their body. Sometimes it’s beautiful, but other times it’s bizarre, weird, and uncomfortable. And I wanted to show all of that.”
Through the camera’s intimate focus on Gia’s body—while she holds her stomach and caresses her son, takes drug tests, and sweats in traffic with no A/C—the viewer connects with her on a deep human level as she struggles against an oppressive state and foster care system which restricts her movement, invades her privacy, and legally kidnaps her children. Along with subtle but affecting camera movements—like the whip from Gia holding her son to her daughter, ignoring her mother on the other side of the visitation room—Leaf displays a natural gift for orchestrating emotional scenes without relying on dialogue.
While researching for the screenplay for Earth Mama, Leaf made a short documentary, The Heart Still Hums, which tells the real-life story of mothers like Gia and the social workers on the other end. Moved by the people she met throughout the process, Leaf decided to take an unconventional approach to the production of Earth Mama, casting “about 75%” non-actors from the surrounding Area–including a local doula, Tia Nomore, for the lead role as Gia. “I think this film is really special because it includes so many people from the community,” Leaf shares. “This film is so much a collective voice that it really feels like our film.”
One of the layers Earth Mama unravels is trauma and its generational effects. She reflects, “It’s something I always think about with motherhood. We all came from this lineage of people, and how are we here today? And what kind of trauma do we inherit? And what do we want to break away from? And what kind of resilience, power, and strength do we inherit as well? I wanted to kind of bring that out through her relationship to her body and the nature around her.”
While a film as powerful as Earth Mama as a debut feature is an achievement in and of itself, Leaf is not one to rest on her laurels. Amidst being named the Best Breakout Director at London’s BIFA Awards, and receiving both an Independent Spirit and BAFTA nomination, her sights are set on the grander horizons of the film world. “I just want to continue to push that—how can I tell a story?” Upon reflecting on the way that her feature film captures her voice and creative vision, “now it’s just about pushing that voice and adjusting it to different things that interests me and the different sides of myself.”
Photographed by Ryan Marie Helfant
Styled by Eloise Moulton
Written by Oliver Heffron
Styling Assistant: Natalia Ortiz Vidales