words Adam Davidson
Director Savanah Leaf talks to Flux about her feature debut ‘Earth Mama’, Surrealism and sparking conversation through art.
Team GB Olympian-turned-filmmaker Savanah Leaf marks her feature debut with the heartbreaking Drama ‘Earth Mama’, a movie that tackles issues of class and race within the restrictive welfare system in the US.
‘Earth Mama’ follows the story of Gia [Tia Nomore], a pregnant woman in the Bay Area who tries to regain custody of her two children in foster care.
Earth Mama was developed from your short movie ‘The Heart Still Hums’, what was it about the themes of this story that were so engaging for you?
I wrote a first draft of ‘Earth Mama’, which was based on my relationship with my sister and her birth mother. It was based on my relationships with all mothers that have had an impact on my own life. There was a yearning to understand the parents that can’t parent you because I never knew my father growing up so that was a big part of it as well.
Then, I made that short documentary which followed these different mothers who were dealing with the foster care system and I was inspired by all of them, by the resilience they had, the strength they had and also the requirements it took to be fit to parent in the eyes of social workers.
What was your North Star when directing this movie?
The thing that kept me going through the whole script phase was the idea that I had this character that on paper we are supposed to think she is a bad mother or even a bad person, in terms of our moral compass as a society. What inspired me about that is that I don’t think it’s that simple, I don’t feel that way. I wanted to challenge myself and the audience to question that moral compass that we often enter this film with.
At the end of the movie, I saw it from both points of view and didn’t know what to think… Was this the intention?
The intention was to question the judgment you walked into the movie theater with and question what is the right solution. It hopefully provokes some conversation with the people you go to the cinema with and if there’s any solution that you can think of.
The movie has been out in the US for a couple of months now, what is the best response you’ve had?
One of the things that has stood out for me was people feeling like they could share their story after this. There’ve been a lot of mothers that are very shy to share their experiences with the foster care system, a lot of them try to hide it at all costs. I’ve had a couple of mothers come up to me and say “I feel like I can tell my friends about the fact that I had to fight to get my kids back.” That is a huge step in the healing process for them. That was really rewarding to hear them say that.
Is that one of the most rewarding things about being a filmmaker to effect that change?
Yeah, I think even if it affects two people in the cinema then that is an accomplishment and that is what you are hoping for. Other people might hate it but if it can affect even two people then that’s all that matters.
It’s not a topic that’s tackled too often, what are the difficulties of capturing this uncharted territory?
It’s a social drama and lots of people are very sensitive to that. People want to have an easy solution to walk away with. This is not that and this could never be that. That creates a challenge when writing the script, I don’t want to give everyone an easy solution because there is no easy solution. That challenge and knowing that people might not like that feeling is uncomfortable but it’s so exciting as well to find that territory that people are maybe too afraid to explore.
Were there any scenes in particular that you had difficulties filming?
The surrealism was a big challenge. I knew we wanted it to be natural and grounded in reality as much as possible but you’re constantly questioning whether you should put that in there or only the real world. I was constantly questioning that within myself, so that’s scary territory to try something new.
The surrealism added so much but was unexpected, what was the decision behind that?
There’s something that can’t always be described through dialogue or a dramatic scene. It’s like a physiological response to your experience of motherhood and It’s an exploration of your inner life. I wanted to do something that was beyond the physical world as we know it but tapped into something that was bubbling and brewing inside of her.
I loved the performance of Tia Nomore as Gia. As a lead character, she had little dialogue and her character is built around what other people say about her. What were your early conversations with Tia like about developing this character?
Gia is someone that is thinking a lot and she’s trying to find a way to articulate what she feels inside but doesn’t always know how to and doesn’t know how to fight for herself verbally. I think that’s something that a lot of people feel, especially Black women like myself. If I’m put in a situation in a room full of people and I want to stand up and argue my case but I don’t know how to say the words to do it. So I end up sitting in silence and going home and wanting to scream. She is that character, so Tia and I talked about that, what does she want to say but she can’t and is holding herself back from saying?
What are the difficulties of writing a protagonist that doesn’t have much dialogue?
The writing felt very natural for me because it’s how I experience the world. I think it’s difficult because a lot of people might not resonate with that. A lot of people like a drama where there is verbally a lot of drama. Quiet lead characters are looked down upon a lot of the time, it’s not something that everyone resonates with. That was the challenge in knowing this might not resonate with everyone having a quieter character. She’s a bit reserved because she feels like she doesn’t know how to speak.
‘Earth Mama’ is out in cinemas on 8th December.