There is impressive, there is spectacular and there is Savanah Leaf – not yet 30 and already accumulating giddying lifetime achievements. At the age of 18, she played volleyball for Team GB at the 2012 Olympics. Then came a psychology degree. After that she returned to volleyball, turning pro and touring Turkey and Puerto Rico. Then, in 2015, an injury put her out of action for 18 months. “My whole world shifted,” she said. “I had to figure out what I was going to do next.”
Leaf signed up to a course in music video production and by 2020 had been Grammy-nominated, for a promo she directed for blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. Now she has made her feature film debut with Earth Mama, a heartbreaking drama about Gia, a young, pregnant black woman in San Francisco fighting to get her two children out of foster care and agonising over whether to put her unborn baby up for adoption.
Earth Mama has all the ingredients of a social-realist drama – and Leaf cites Ken Loach’s Ladybird Ladybird as an influence. She is also a big fan of the Dardenne brothers. But her film is intimate and emotionally perceptive. It doesn’t cross the Ts or dot the Is. Instead, it takes you into the world inhabited by Gia, beautifully played by Tia Nomore, a rapper and trainee doula in her first acting role. Watching, I couldn’t believe it was directed by someone under 30. Leaf appears to have arrived on the scene with a fully-baked sensibility.
Her inspiration was autobiographical. When she was 16, her mother adopted a baby – her sister – who is now 14. “I was there during her birth,” she says. “Not in the room but in the hospital. I cut the umbilical cord. It was so special. I went from being an only child to all of a sudden having a sibling, with the responsibilities of that.”
The first scene Leaf wrote is set in a restaurant where Gia is interviewing a family: potential adopters for her unborn baby. Everyone is nervous, unable to relax. It is based on Leaf’s memories of meeting her sister’s birth mother – a woman not much older than herself but living in completely different circumstances. “That was a very formative moment,” she says. “I felt similar to her in many ways.” How so? “Being black women from a similar area, growing up at the same time. I remember that connection, mostly unspoken, just a smile passing.”
Leaf is friendly and focused. Sitting straight-backed and perfectly poised, she is speaking via Zoom from the house in Vauxhall, London, where she spent her early childhood. She was raised by her mum and has never known her dad. When she was 10, they relocated to California for her mum’s work – she’s an animator. “I really didn’t want to go,” says Leaf. “We moved from where I knew everybody on my street to a place where I knew nobody. And the culture shock: people didn’t understand this mixed-race kid with a British accent.” She quickly picked up an American accent. “I wanted to fit in so badly.”
She started playing volleyball, too. “It gave me a community – an instant group of people to connect with.” Although she has constantly travelled back and forth between the US and London, she still feels British in her bones – despite recently gaining US citizenship.
When she hit her teens, sport took over. “It became everything, practising every single day.” The Olympics were lovely, she says, with the mostly British crowds cheering like mad for Team GB even though they didn’t have the first clue about volleyball. “I wasn’t scared. I was young and fearless.” Next she went to the University of Miami on a sports scholarship .
Where did her drive come from? She credits her mum. “She worked hard to raise me by herself and give me opportunities.” However, her own shyness may have been a factor, too. “I really didn’t like school. I wanted to prove people wrong. I wanted to be that kid who might not have been great in the classroom but could figure it out in the world.”
Even before she picked up an injury, disillusionment with volleyball was setting in. “I had always felt trapped, like people only cared about my body, this robotic action.” She was also coming under pressure not to speak out about issues that mattered to her, particularly racism in America. She was living in Florida in 2012 when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed. “That hit me hard. There was just so much going on in America. I remember wanting to be so vocal, but there was this sentiment: this is not the right time or place, keep it to yourself. I struggled with that. I wanted to figure out a way to use my platform. Coming to film and starting to write, that was an outlet.”
Earth Mama is full of insights about class and race. It shows how the welfare system is stacked against women like 24-year-old Gia, who must jump through hoops while she struggles to keep her family together. She’s behind on payments for her two kids in foster care (in the US, parents can be charged for the cost when their children are taken into care). But Gia can’t pick up extra shifts at work because of the parenting classes and drug recovery groups a court requires her to attend. Contact with her kids is limited to one hour per week in a windowless room, supervised by a social worker sitting in the corner with a clipboard. We see Gia, eight months pregnant, on her feet all day. It’s relentless.
Leaf says the “emotional research” for Earth Mama came from a short documentary she co-directed with her friend, the actor Taylor Russell. The Heart Still Hums followed five women who’d either given their children up for adoption or were fighting to get them back. As she began to think about fictionalising it as a drama, Leaf found herself wondering more and more about the foster system: “What does it mean ‘fit to parent’? Who determines that? How do they measure that?”
Gia and the other women in Earth Mama are survivors of trauma. But Leaf chose not to put anything harrowing on screen. Why? “Because everyone is coming into this film with a lot of weight and trauma. Black women in particular have been mothers not only to their own kids, but everybody’s. There’s a weight to that. So yes, it was a very deliberate choice not to make people relive something they’re carrying with them.” Instead, you see Gia’s grit. “I think there is a power in having to fight through so much. I wanted to highlight that. You see her not giving up.”
When she started directing, Leaf says she experienced impostor syndrome – a feeling she didn’t belong, partly due to a lack of role models. “I didn’t even know, when I was growing up, that some of the films I loved were written and directed by black women. I was wondering how I would ever become a director because I wasn’t seeing black women being directors. I really struggled. It took me a lot to gain the confidence to send my script to people and feel like my voice was worth being heard.”
It’s a feeling that has never completely disappeared. “Even to this day, I don’t necessarily feel the support of everyone around me.” What does she do in that situation? “My mindset from sport comes into play: ignoring the people who are doubting me, blocking out a lot of noise in order to get to this goal.”
Are there other skills that can be brought from volleyball? She nods enthusiastically. “I think more athletes should be in film, honestly. There are so many parallels: working in a team, looking at the people around you, seeing what their skills are and pushing them to be their best.” Then there’s dealing with pressure. “When you’re on set and your locations fall apart or your cast gets sick, everyone’s looking to you to figure it out. You really need that split-second decision-making.”
Every year on New Year’s Eve, Leaf sits down and writes out her goals. A few years ago, one was to make a film before she turned 30. What’s next? “Making more films I believe in. I look at people like the Dardennes or Michael Haneke or Claire Denis. They’ve been able to do what they believe in, they have a distinct voice. My goal is to maintain my voice and keep writing scripts I believe in.”