A decade ago, Savanah Leaf was at the top of her game, literally — the London-born, Bay Area-raised former professional volleyball player competed for Great Britain in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Then in 2015, Leaf suffered an injury while playing internationally in Puerto Rico and was forced to make a choice: Either take a year off or have surgery to install metal rods in her legs.
The injury was devastating, but Leaf recalls that the year of rest that followed allowed her to explore her creative ambitions away from the all-consuming schedule of a professional athlete. "I was forced to think about myself beyond sports, which I don't think a lot of athletes get the pleasure of doing," Leaf says.
She had always been interested in photography, and that year, began working at a music video production company. "I started from place of not knowing anything. I didn't go to film school or anything like that," Leaf says. "I kind of just started by making something." In 2020, the music video she directed for "This Land" by Gary Clark Jr. was nominated for a Grammy Award, and the short documentary she helmed with actress Taylor Russell, The Heart Still Hums, won Best Documentary Short Film at multiple stops on the festival circuit.
The Heart Still Hums inspired Leaf's A24-backed debut feature, Earth Mama, an honest and intimate portrait of an Oakland mother, Gia (played by Tia Nomore), fighting for the custody of her children. Far from the volleyball court, the filmmaker's Olympic-level focus and tenacity still served her in crafting a debut feature that feels authentically aligned with her creative vision. "I'm so grateful to have made a film that I truly feel like I can stand behind."
Below, Leaf shares with A.frame five films that served as inspiration for Earth Mama.
Directed by: Ken Loach | Written by: Rona Munro
One film that really impacted me was Ladybird Ladybird. It follows a mother who's combatting so many obstacles. What I love about this film is this woman wants a child so badly as a form of love for herself, and she keeps trying to have kids to find that love. She tries to find it in partners as well, but her children keep getting taken away and it's so painful.
There's this one scene I keep thinking about. She's in the hospital giving birth and sees the caseworkers coming, and she realizes that they're going to take the child away. So, she's begging to keep the child inside her body, and I just thought what a powerful symbol of attachment to your child. It became this big reference, not for the visual language, but for the emotion of the mother combatting the system and fighting for what she's yearning for most.
Directed and written by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
It would be easy to say L'Enfant by the Dardenne brothers, but I want to say The Son because t has a similar parent-child dynamic. The dynamic between the father and son has so much silence and so much love. There's so much that's not being said throughout the entire film until the ending, and that builds up, knowing where things are probably going. But you feel the anxiety of nothing being said. That was really inspiring for me.
That's something that the Dardenne brothers do so beautifully. You're following these characters, oftentimes, it's very rough and then there's this peak moment of confrontation. You know, it's coming, but you're hoping it doesn't come. That film is so beautiful, because there's this moment where the father turns around, is backing up the car, and almost looks at the lens. He's got such a strong face full of pain and anger and rage and frustration. That moment was really pivotal for me.
In Earth Mama, you see these moments where Gia almost looks at the lens in pain and suffering, but also in a yearning and longing and rage. It forces the audience to confront that emotion within themselves as well.
Directed and written by: Lucrecia Martel
The opening is so painful. You hear this large thud and you don't know what she just ran over. But she's haunted by the fears of what that might have been. And constantly throughout the background of every scene, you're seeing children like run in and out. It's this beautiful way of her being framed and haunted, so you know what she's fearing. You know her fears through what's happening in the background or what's being said off-screen or what sounds are happening.
For me, that was a really important film that helped me understand how we can play with blocking and sound off-screen, and portraying children on and off-screen to kind of give insight into Gia's dreams and hopes and fears.
Directed and written by: Michael Haneke
I think Michale Haneke is amazing. Code Unknown is one of my favorite movies. One of the things that really stand out to me is the way the dolly moves, and how much anxiety it creates by really sitting with characters for a full scene and not breaking it for an edit. Forcing yourself, as the director and actors, to live through that moment is really powerful. It creates anxiety without forcing it upon the audience, and you and I feel the progression of the scene. There is this one moment where he goes all the way down the dolly track and then comes all the way back. It's a really interesting feeling that reflects the story. We did that a lot for Earth Mama. She tries to leave her situation and then gets pulled right back into her system. Code Unknown was a big reference for me as we're playing with that yearning to escape but being pulled back in.
Directed and written by: Cristian Mungiu
This film is about a woman who is trying to get an illegal abortion when it's too late in her pregnancy, when she's not allowed to. And I love this film because the plot is cramped into a small timeframe. As we were writing Earth Mama, I was thinking, "How do we think about time?" We know she's about to pop her baby, her belly is so heavy, but we don't know when that's going to happen. Is it even going to happen when the film ends? I love that feeling of literally being so pregnant that you know there's something coming.
That's how I felt through 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. They're trying to do something, but you're not fully sure what it is. All you know is that it's really important that it happens right now. And there’s this dynamics between two female best friends that's like how Gia and Trina are figuring out their children together [in Earth Mama]. Mungiu shows there are arguments that happen because of these sort of situations, but also the craziness and jokes at times.