Savanah Leaf is best known for her volleyball career, which took her to competing for Great Britain at the 2012 Summer Olympics. The sports player has now shifted her focus with her recent directorial debut Earth Mama, an intimate story of motherhood, following a pregnant woman’s journey desperately trying to cling onto her unborn child and regain custody of her first two children.
After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival 2023 to glorious reviews, Earth Mama is now coming to British screens on the 8th of December.
Featuring musical artist Tia Nomore as lead character Gia and rapper Doechii as her best friend Trina, the film is a poignant, and incredibly real, portrayal of some of the challenges that face young mothers today. Earth Mama implicitly unpacks the social services system and the intersection between poverty and single motherhood as it follows a woman’s fight for a better life for her and her children, whilst navigating a system directly impeding her chances.
In an exclusive interview with GUAP, Leaf reveals how the film came to be, insights into the creative process, and a surreal coincidental filming anecdote.
GUAP: How did Earth Mama come to be?
SAVANAH: The first draft of the script was roughly based on my relationship with my sister and her birth mother. It was a very personal draft based on what it feels like to be a child yearning to understand a parent who can’t parent you or isn’t around to parent. I first made a documentary short called The Heart Still Hums, which became emotional research for the narrative feature. When afterward I went back to the narrative script, it became more of a collective voice, rather than just being centered on this one experience.
GUAP: Why was it important to portray Black motherhood in a non-monolithic way?
SAVANAH: I wanted to show Black women I felt connected to. All these characters are little pieces of me at different phases of my life. Gia, similar to myself, holds a lot of pent-up frustration to ensure she does what the system wants her to do in order to get her kids back. She has all of these restraining emotions. And this is not something I see in cinemas a lot. When you’ve got a Black mother, they’re always showing their emotions outwardly, but I don’t relate to that. In my own life experiences, I don’t feel like I have the freedom to do that. In each of the characters, there’s something of myself.
Trina is a friend who is funny and tries to make light of tough situations and preaches your words of wisdom but is also going against that wisdom sometimes. You have Miss Carmen, who’s almost like a coach. Sometimes she feels selfish, other times selfless. I wanted to give every character those layers to show no character is all good or bad.
GUAP: Was it an intentional choice to work with a new actor?
SAVANAH: I had a fantasy of finding someone who was a new actor, but I realised how difficult the script was. Gia is in every scene of the movie and carries so much weight. But when I started meeting actors, no one really felt like Gia, it felt like they were putting on Gia. Tia not only came from the Bay, but she was also a performer, having that experience of working tirelessly through all hours of the day. She was a new mum, still breastfeeding during filming. She was training to become a doula. She had this connection to motherhood which I didn’t even have. It felt like all the stars aligned in finding Tia to play Gia.
GUAP: What was a highlight moment from filming?
SAVANAH: There was a really surreal moment where we had a body double, who was heavily pregnant, actually go into labour during one of the scenes. It was a pivotal scene and the last one we were filming with her. It was perfectly timed in the perfect location.
GUAP: What do you hope audiences will gain from Earth Mama?
SAVANAH: I hope that for the audiences to whom this has happened, they will feel seen and heard; that there’s a story that recognises their circumstances. In general, I hope this elicits some conversations around the subject matter and sparks more. The topic of a parent who can’t parent, whether they want to or not, is still so taboo and I hope this will enable a change.
Earth Mama releases in UK cinemas on 8th December. Watch the trailer here.
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