Filmmaker Savanah Leaf understands that less is more. Although few words are said aloud in her new film, Earth Mama, every moment of silence allows for more room to feel the depth of emotion. The film — Leaf's feature debut — centers around a young mother, Gia (played by musician Tia Nomore), as she struggles to regain custody of her two children from the foster care system.
Earth Mama was largely inspired by Leaf's 2020 short film, The Heart Still Hums, which she made with her friend, the actress Taylor Russell. The 28-minute black-and-white documentary follows the lives of five women struggling through poverty, homelessness, and drug abuse; in adapting it to a feature-length drama, Leaf delves into the specificity of one woman to create an intimate and unflinching portrait of Black motherhood.
"This film was grounded in my own personal story," Leaf tells A.frame. "I wrote the script because I was thinking about my sister's birth mother and what she was going through when she gave her child up for adoption. I felt a lot of things when my sister was born — sadness because I could feel the pain that she was going through, but also joy because I was so excited to be an older sister. I wanted to show the complexities of what leads someone to make that decision."
Earth Mama never shies away from the gritty realities of what it's like to be a single Black mother facing a system that seems designed to deny them their autonomy. Gia has to balance working enough hours to pay child-support, while also taking classes mandated by social services, while also making time for supervised visits with her kids. She's also pregnant with her third child and considering an open adoption. Gia's pregnant best friend (played by the rapper Doechii) is convinced that giving up her baby is wrong.
But as we experience Gia's journey, these choices aren't exactly black or white. And Gia is neither the hero nor the villain in her own life. "Life is really difficult," Leaf says, "and we're not perfect human beings."
Portraying Gia demanded raw vulnerability from Nomore. She story hit "hella close to home" for her, considering she herself had just given birth to a daughter the year prior. "That's literally all I had to pull from, was just thinking about my kid," she says. For a first-time actress, without any formal training, that also meant there were days when Nomore felt too raw and too vulnerable.
"I kind of had to get comfortable with just being like, 'Guys, I'm f**king feeling it right now," she opens up. "Like, I'm in every scene. I'm there every day, like 18-something hours a day, and that was like the longest I've been away from my kid ever." She remembers suddenly bursting into tears while shooting one scene, which ended up in the final cut of the film. "I don't know what was gonna make it into the scene, you know? But my body remembers what was going on."
Leaf worked closely with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes to craft a visual language that not only allowed for spontaneous moments like that one, but encouraged them. As Leaf explains, "Everything was, how do we reduce the amount of cuts in the film? How do we allow actors to perform for an entire scene without breaking their emotional arc of that moment?" Often, the camera holds on Nomore's face for an extended dolly shot, tracking Gia's inner thoughts and cluing us into the depths of her joy or pain.
"I was thinking a lot about ancestry and our lineage of Black women," Leaf muses, "how we take on the trauma of our parents and our parents' parents and how you want to break that trauma as well. I wanted to figure out a way to pull that into the film."
Throughout it all, Nomore kept a journal in which she would write letters to Gia. It was a way to get inside the character's head, but also a way for the actress to let her go at the end of an intense day of filming. "As a artist, like as a writer, as a lyricist, tangibly writing sh*t down really helps me to release," she shares. "I had to put that s**t down, because it's like, right after set, I'm going straight to my kid. So, I had to leave Gia on set and then take my time getting home with Tia."
Even all this time later, Nomore can still feel the part of her that became Gia. "It took hella long for her to leave my body," she admits. "I'm still working on it." What she did gain by the end of shooting was a new appreciation for her abilities as an actress.
"I don't think I ever felt like I was the right person, per se, until it was over with. I was always like, 'Man, they could cut me at any moment,'" she says with a laugh. "It kind of felt like being on the sports team, really, and if you know anything about Savannah that makes sense, right?" — Leaf was an Olympian before she became a filmmaker — "There was a lot of endurance and passion attached to this project. And I felt like I was getting stronger every day."
Earth Mama premiered at Sundance earlier this year, with the snowy slopes of Park City a far cry from Nomore and Leaf's native Bay Area. (The filmmaker was born in London but raised in Oakland, where the film is set.) Making the movie was a learning experience for both its director and star, but now they are able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. "It's been hella tight to be appreciated for something so raw and true to us and authentic to us," Nomore reflects.
"It feels good to be seen in this way," she says. "Because I feel like we should always be seen in this way."
Reporting by Jireh Deng