Q&A WITH SAVANAH LEAF
Olympian-turned-filmmaker Savanah Leaf’s feature debut Earth Mama is an honest and graceful study of Black Motherhood set in Oakland, California. The film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where its authenticity and assured sense of style made it a festival standout. Leaf’s previous short film, The Heart Stills Hums, won Best Documentary Short at BlackStar Film Festival. With her follow-up, Leaf has proven herself an exciting new director keen on telling intimate stories of cultural importance.
Earth Mama is now playing in theaters.
Q. Earth Mama comes off the heels of your previous short documentary The Heart Still Hums. What was the transition from nonfiction to fiction filmmaking like?
A. I wrote the first draft of Earth Mama before The Heart Still Hums, and it was very much an ode to the women and mothers who have impacted my life throughout my upbringing in the Bay Area. I was extremely nervous to share the script with anyone, because it was intimate and felt revealing — like I was putting myself on display. It was all wrapped up in the story of how I met my sister’s birth mother, and my imagination of what her life might have been like if I were her. But also, I had so many questions at the time, and so I felt like I needed to dive deeper. I wasn’t sure whether the project should be a long-form documentary or fiction film.
Creating the documentary solidified my feelings towards making the fictionalized feature. Sometimes you can’t say all you want to say through a documentary, perhaps because of the ethics behind it, or perhaps because sometimes there is a wall between you and the truth when you follow people around with cameras. So for me, this story really had to be fiction.
I could paint a world where we see Gia’s hopes and dreams through her work at a photo studio, I could write the words that we often only tell our closest friends or worse enemies, I could create a nostalgic tone through setting the film in the Bay Area in the mid 2000s, and I could show uncomfortable truths without affecting anyone’s potential of getting their children back from the foster care system. At the same time, I was able to incorporate documentary moments into the film by integrating people and their real stories to show the universality of this story — it is not just one person’s truth, it affects our whole community. The documentary experiences I’ve had have helped inform the fiction in a way that feels intuitive in the approach, and in some ways, even more honest in the storytelling.
Q. What informed your decision to frame people in such a way that they would address the audience directly throughout Earth Mama?
A. Something I spoke a lot about with Jody Lee Lipes, our cinematographer, was how we can frame and block our actors without imposing the camera on them. We wanted the camera to observe the characters in a matter-of-fact way. This led to moments when the actors look just beside the lens, almost as if they are confronting the audience.
Q. Both of your films concern Black motherhood, what inspired you to focus on this subject matter?
A. I grew up only really being surrounded by women. I never met my father so it was really the women around me that raised me. Not only my own mother, but my friends’ mothers, my teammates, coaches, grandmother, aunt, and my sister’s birth mother. All of these women really impacted me in so many ways, through both their successes and mistakes.
I chose to make a film about Black mothers for several reasons. My sister’s birth mother is an inspiration to me. She asked me to cut my sister’s umbilical cord when I was 16 and that moment really impacted me. I’m also approaching a moment in my own life where I think about kids for myself, and what that might be like. And honestly I’m scared, not because of parenting or anything like that, but because it’s especially difficult for Black mothers with healthcare, societal and systemic pressures and expectations. So I think I was drawn to showing the fears I have around eventually being a Black mother myself.
Q. You invoke the Bay Area’s nature in several scenes throughout Earth Mama. Do you have a favorite hiking trail in the area?
A. I didn’t hike much when I was younger, maybe I’d walk around Lake Anza at most but I more so would drive up the mountain and pick a spot with my friends to look out from — Inspiration Point or Grizzly Peak. Or I would go by the marina to the Berkeley Piers, or even in San Pablo or Pinole by the water. But now, I guess I’d say my favorite hikes are probably in the Oakland Hills or in the Marin Headlands. Reinhardt Redwoods are insane — they are so vast and mystical, right there in the city. The Headlands are so picturesque — the way the fog rolls over the hills on one side, and on the other side you can see the waves crashing against the rocks.
Q. Do you have a favorite camera to shoot on?
A. Not really, I’m not a very technical director when it comes to the camera. I can describe a texture or emotion of what I want the image to feel like, but I couldn’t tell you which specific camera and lenses to use. I just love to shoot on film.
The whole set feels different shooting on 35mm or 16mm. Everyone is extremely focused and engaged on set. You can’t see the image too clearly so there’s a level of surprise when viewing the rushes. I love the re-discovery in that moment. Seeing the full texture and the way the color feels in the highlights, is just so rich and full. There’s nothing that feels more tangible than film. I don’t know why I would ever shoot digitally.
Q. If you could have anyone make the soundtrack to your next film, who would it be?
A. Well I love Kelsey Lu, she did a beautiful job on Earth Mama. She is so talented as a musician and composer, and also just so tapped into her emotions in a way that is really easy to communicate with. I would definitely love to work with her again.
But if it wasn’t her, I guess Mica Levi and Thom Yorke, they’ve been big inspirations to me for a while. The way they incorporate textures into sound. I also loved what Fatima al Qadiri did in Atlantics. I could also see Thundercat making an incredible soundtrack. It would have to be a playful film though, because I couldn’t imagine him creating music in any other way.
Q. Is it important to you to have a creative routine, or do you prefer spontaneity?
A. I love spontaneity. I grew up with such a regimented life with sports and school, and I hated that routine. It felt so crippling to me that I couldn’t make up my own schedule. I hate feeling like I’m in school or in some sort of system that is caging me in. Emotionally it really pulls me down, although in the back of my head I know it’s the only way to get better.
I prefer to give myself goals like — ‘okay, you’re going to write a full draft of a script this week, no matter how good or bad it is. Then I’ll take a few weeks off, experience life, travel, explore art and research, then I’ll come back to the desk and give myself another week to dive into the story. That’s how I like to work, so I guess it’s a bit of both — spontaneity keeps the juices flowing, but succinct, efficient time in routine helps get the work done.
Q. What image would you like to end this interview with?