“With art, you’re just out there ready to be criticised and that’s terrifying”: Savanah Leaf on Earth Mama

Professional volleyball player turned director Savanah Leaf discusses her award-winning debut feature film Earth Mama.

5 December 2023

By Katie McCabe

Tia Nomore as Gia in Earth Mama (2023)
Sight and Sound

In Earth Mama, the heavily-pregnant lead Gia is seen working at a photo portrait shop, selecting softly-painted backdrops of clouds and toy baby blocks for smiling families as they pose for the camera. For those brief picture-perfect moments, the suspended photo canvases offer a flimsy alternate reality, a glimpse of the family idyll Gia is trying so hard to cultivate for herself. 

Gia is a single mother fighting to regain custody of her children from an unforgiving US foster care system – a story inspired, in part, by Leaf’s documentary short The Heart Still Hums, which followed five mothers in Sacramento caught in a similar cycle of state neglect. Earth Mama, then, is a film grounded in realism, but one that drifts into occasional expressionistic daydreams. Shooting on 16mm, Leaf bathes the film in hazy, polaroid-pastel tones that light up Gia’s emotional world – whether she’s dealing with soul-crushing court mandated paperwork, or walking naked through the California redwood forest. 

It’s a remarkably assured first feature; just last week, Leaf won the Best Debut Director prize at the British Independent Film Awards. It’s an ascent that feels all the more intriguing when you learn of her first career – a professional volleyball player who competed in the 2012 Olympics.  

Ahead of the UK release, I spoke to Leaf about her family’s influence on Earth Mama, her approach to “heavy” storytelling, and how her background as an athlete prepared her for managing a film set. 

Savanah Leaf on the set of Earth Mama (2023)

You’ve said Earth Mama is a mirror of your own experience in some ways, as your sister was adopted by your family when you were 16. When did the idea for the film start forming?

I feel like I’ve been prepping my whole life for this film. I was raised by a single mom, and I never knew my father growing up. And so there’s always this kind of question of: who is this parent that’s not raising you? And why aren’t they raising you?… And then when my sister was born, I was thinking about what her birth mother is going through and why she can’t raise her child. And so that question of a parent that can’t be there was always a curiosity of mine.

I understand you didn’t want to force emotion through your camera language in Earth Mama. Can you tell me a little more about that?

Something I feel sometimes with social dramas is that everyone knows that this is about to be a heavy film… the camera language is telling me it’s going to be a heavy film, and you should feel on edge right now. It’s forcing me into that emotion, even if the emotion is already there. And so what I tried to do with the camera was just allow you to feel that anxiety in stillness, and come up with your own feelings towards the characters, and not try to impose myself on those people. 

As somebody who had a baby 16 months ago, I appreciated that Gia’s pregnancy looked very real, which isn’t always the case in films. How important was that, to show the physical stress pregnancy has on the body?

I watch a lot of films, and I see the fake pregnant belly and it makes me cringe. And so [it was] something that I talked about a lot with our SFX team… We tried a couple of different sizes on Gia, and we made a belly that she could also have a crop top on and you see a bit of the belly hanging out. And that gives it this element of realism. It’s not always hidden behind a t-shirt. Tia [Nomore, who plays Gia] was such a big important factor in all of this because I’m not a mother myself, but Tia was a recent mom when we filmed this. So she spent a lot of time just wearing the fake belly and trying to remember what it felt like not only to carry this belly, but also how people receive you, and how that impacts your social interactions.

There’s a moment where Gia’s case worker says: “We could maybe keep the child at home for as long as you’re breastfeeding”. I think you really got to the core of how some mothers can be treated like they cease to matter when the child arrives – unless they’re physically needed to provide something. And I wanted to know a bit more about your thoughts on that.

I think, for a lot of mothers, their child is taken away instantly, as soon as they’ve given birth. I understand some households are very difficult for a baby to survive in. And those factors are important and shouldn’t be ignored. But at the same time, if we think about some of these mothers… how are they physically ever going to heal if they are stripped away at that point? And even after they’re breastfeeding. What does that do to you physiologically? That was a huge, important part of this film – [I thought] “how do I create that sense of that awareness of the body and our connection to this thing that’s been growing inside of you, and then it’s taking on its own life away from you?”… I wanted to try to show that physiological effect it might have on a mother and a child.

Before you went into filmmaking, you were a professional volleyball player. Do you find that background helps you in your directing style? 

Definitely. I feel like I’ve met a lot of filmmakers that were very good at sports in high school, if not in college, and some of them professionally… There’s something about working in film that feels very complementary to working in a team environment on a court: looking at all the players around you and seeing what their skill sets are, trying to bring the best out in them, pushing them extremely hard and also them expecting to do that to you and not being afraid of that. People always say that I’m like an athlete when I’m directing. And I honestly think actors are like athletes, they really are putting themselves emotionally and physically through so much. 

You competed in the 2012 Olympics. What was scarier – that, or premiering your film to an audience for the first time?

Definitely premiering the film. I mean, I was 18 playing in the Olympics. So there was a sense of fearlessness. Now, I feel like I’m more insecure, probably than I ever have been. But also… If you are a really good athlete, you might get some haters, but for the most part, people respect how good you are at playing that sport. Whereas art, you’re just out there ready to be criticised. And that’s terrifying.

I look at older directors… they make one film, everyone loves them and the next film, everybody hates them and thinks they’ve lost it. And then it takes another five years to make another film, and maybe they’ll get it again… But for some reason, people keep doing it. I don’t know if it’s competitive, or if they like being on the edge of criticism. I’m not sure what it is. But I kind of feel that too. I’m terrified of being criticised for what I’m making, but if I don’t try, if I don’t put myself out there, I’ll forever be bottled up with that emotion. And I think I’d rather just get it out there.

► Earth Mama is in UK cinemas on 8 December. 

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