I believe it was filmmaker John Huston who said he alternated between making a film for love and money. His words suggest filmmaking is a steady, regularized pace, moving from one film to the next. However, a particular story or project can become like a long layover.
For former British Volleyball Olympian turned director Savanah Leaf, this layover has been an empathetic preoccupation with the plight of young women. Leaf has expanded her short documentary, The Heart Still Hums (2020) – co-written and directed by Taylor Russell, about five women, some of whom had given their children up for adoption while others were in foster care – into the narrative feature, Earth Mama (2023).
Set in Oakland, California, 24-year-old Gia (Tia Nomore) is pregnant with two children already in foster care. She’s only permitted hour-long supervised weekly visits. Earth Mama is not only a debut for its director, but rapper Nomore makes her acting debut, whose tender and resilient performance gives the character authenticity.
Gia does her best to meet the conditions set out to regain custody of her children. She works at a photo shop, but looking after herself and the health of her unborn child, fitting in work, and the supervised visits take their toll. Under pressure, she considers whether adoption is in the best interests of her children. The conflict is not only between the state and women like Gia but the gentleness and toughness needed to raise children and to survive in difficult circumstances, where generational parenting issues and poverty are inherent struggles.
At the 67th BFI London Film Festival, where Earth Mama screened in the First Feature Competition, Leaf greets me with a warm smile. The conversation begins by talking about Earth Mama’s personal roots. “The first draft of the script was initially based on my reflecting on the first moment I met my sister’s birth mother,” remembers Leaf. She describes this as “the heart of the film”. Leaf was 16 years old when her mother adopted her baby sister, which changed her viewpoint on motherhood. From these initial reflections, the idea for the film expanded as she thought about her own mother and her friends’ mothers, with The Heart Still Hums acting as an important stepping stone between short and feature.
“I was thinking about my own place in the Bay Area, then I made this short documentary that became emotional research for the narrative feature,” explains Leaf. “I began to do further research on what it means to be a fit parent, who determines that, and what the requirements are. That gave layers to the systematic pressures confronting Gia.”
These are powerful, provocative questions. Earth Mama is part of a larger ongoing conversation that must recognize systemic change and progress as incremental shifts. Unfortunately, these are often thwarted by platitudes instead of action. Leaf agrees it’s about small changes, and her hopes for the film are measured accordingly. “It’s about conversations and breaking down judgments. A goal of mine is that people walk out of the theater questioning at least one idea they walked in with – that would be a huge accomplishment,” she says.
From the first scene, Leaf seeks to engage the film’s audience. Gia is framed in such a way that she could be talking to the audience, which forces them to be active participants. This is something that interests Leaf, who says, “I don’t want to shy away from the fact that it’s a movie, but make it as authentic as possible.”
Leaf is realistic about the limitations of engagement, and she respects her characters’ experiences, careful not to reduce them to objects or persons to be pitied. “What Tia says in the film’s opening scene is about judgement – “You can’t walk in my shoes, but you can walk beside me.” That is a huge statement because it’s not just about her specific story; it’s also about the filmmaking and being in the audience. “You’ll never be able to walk in some of these people’s shoes,” she says, “but you can be a supporter and listen. You can be active, and that’s a huge challenge to everyone that walks into the theater.”
Leaf reveals how making Earth Mama has shifted her point of view, which she’ll now carry into future scripts. “I walked into making this film with the goal of getting people to empathize with a mother who makes a decision that everyone might hate her for.” She adds, “Then Tia spoke to me and said, ‘You can’t walk in my shoes,’ and that stuck with me. Maybe it was naïve to think I could get an audience to walk in Gia’s shoes – I don’t think that’s possible anymore.”
Partway through the story, Gia is criticized for considering adoption. Her family and friends’ anger is understandable because she’d be sending her baby away from the family and community that would care for her. We shouldn’t be too quick to judge, however, because it’s an incredible act of love for a mother to be willing to sacrifice what she wants for the well-being of her baby. Leaf asks her audience to identify the different ways of reading a situation, encouraging scrutiny instead of an impulsive, emotional response.
“An important goal was to look at every character in the film and not make them good or bad,” says Leaf. “They had to be layered. And as you said, Gia makes a huge decision that we feel conflicted about. My goal is that the audience doesn’t think this is the right or wrong choice.” She continues, “I still want to fit things in a box and for it to be very clear, but a lot of the time, it’s really somewhere in the middle. [In life], we hope we’re making the right decisions, but our choices aren’t necessarily perfect. Being more aware of that allows us to empathize, but it’s also being more harmonious in our communities.”
Working in the photo shop, Gia interacts with people who come from better circumstances and might have more than she ever will. The way she keeps going, playing by the rules and doing what the system expects of her, reveals maturity beyond her years. It’s not that she doesn’t get angry, but she tempers her emotions. Leaf sees the fighter in Gia but acknowledges her soft, warm, and loving nature. “She is the hero of this story, and she should be viewed as that, even if she doesn’t get exactly what she wants in the end.”
Suggesting to Leaf that if we’re trying to be happy, then how can we expect to be so, she says, “We’re constantly chasing something we might not be able to get, but then there are these moments, like for Gia, who tries to cherish the time with her kids, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. She tries to make the most of it. I don’t want to say it’s satisfaction, but her kids are an escape. Even in the chaos, being in this cold, emotionless room, she’s able to play with her children. She’s able to at least tell them she loves them and that she’s there for them.”
It doesn’t escape me that Leaf’s presence is mirrored in Gia. The character fills the film with an energy that sees the ideas and themes internalised – they’re there, but they’re not necessarily expressed outwardly. This is essential to expressing the authenticity of the character and women who struggle in similar situations. “Gia’s character is someone that internalises a lot of her emotions, and she has this inner life brewing. It builds and builds until an impactful moment,” says Leaf. “That way of handling stress relates to how I handle obstacles in my life. It’s something a lot of black women or people from similar backgrounds feel inside because there’s so much pressure. They have to put on a happy face and try to be resilient, unwavered by these obstacles.”
Earth Mama screened in the First Feature Competition strand of the 67th BFI London Film Festival. It was released in cinemas in the UK by Universal Pictures on 8 December 2023 and in the US by A24 on 7 July 2023.