Ahead of the film’s release, Savanah Leaf joins Document to dissect her A24 feature debut and advocate for fiction’s capacity for truthful storytelling

Savanah Leaf’s feature debut from A24, Earth Mama, brings its audiences in step with Gia, a single pregnant mother of two living in Oakland, California. Early in the film, Gia—played masterfully by local rapper Tia Nomore—meets with her social worker to discuss getting her kids out of foster care, but the road to reunification seems impossibly obstructed; she is required to complete mandatory parenting courses, which she attends as often as possible, but making up the difference would mean booking time off work—and consequently not being able to make child support payments. Sitting with her son and daughter during visiting hours, she reads to them, holds them close, and promises they will be together again. In the meantime, she must decide what the future holds for her baby on the way, whether she has the resources to parent on her own again, or if she should seek adoption services.

Though Gia is repeatedly told that she has choices, how she makes those choices is seldom based on what she wants, but rather, on what resources she has (or doesn’t have). In her 2005 essay “Beyond Pro-Choice versus Pro-Life: Women of Color and Reproductive Justice,” academic Andrea Smith argues that the framing of reproductive politics around the criminalization or decriminalization of abortion overlooks the ways in which, for some communities, the right to have kids in the first place is in and of itself a struggle. As Earth Mama knows, the hyper-surveillance of Black women increases the likelihood of the state policing their reproductive choices and inhibiting their ability to build families.

Though the film is fictional, it draws on Leaf’s 2021 documentary short, The Heart Still Hums—also set in Oakland and co-directed with actor Taylor Russell. Leaf, a former Olympian and music video director, draws on the stories from her earlier project to bring a controlled sensitivity and grounded softness to Earth Mama; it is clear that every frame was made-to-measure, designed to do justice to its weighted subject matter. The film is not without surprises, however, breaking from the severity of Gia’s experience with moments of surreal beauty that burst forth as she imagines herself ambling among California’s towering redwoods, bathed in light, or pulling flowers and roots from her belly button like an umbilical cord.

Ahead of the release of Earth Mama, Document spoke with Leaf about her powerful vision, spanning the film’s ideas of solidarity and Kelsey Lu’s haunting score.

Tia Glista: I understand that you worked with a couple of organizations in the Bay Area to research and cast some parts in the film—can you tell me about these groups and how they informed your approach?

Savanah Leaf: I worked with these casting directors—Geraldine Barón, Salome Oggenfuss, and Abby Harri—who specialize in sitting with organizations and community leaders, and meeting people. It’s a [form] of what, I guess, people call ‘street casting,’ but in a more sensitive manner.

We initially went to organizations like Chicks in Crisis or Black Mothers United, that are specifically built around mothers who have been through similar circumstances to [Gia], and then we expanded into other spaces. Sometimes, it was Berkeley Rep, or Oakland School of the Arts, or various Bay Area acting and performance-based schools. But sometimes, it was a rap collective that would bring us into those worlds, and sometimes, it was putting out casting calls to local basketball teams—that’s how we found Kamaya [Jones]. It was really about looking at people in the performance space, or [who] connected to the scripts in different ways—like doula circles—and trying to find our cast in those spaces.

Tia: The film opens with a testimonial monologue given by a mother in a support group who insists that this is her journey, her story, and that it wouldn’t be possible for anyone else to see things from her point of view. I felt like this was perhaps addressing the audience, making some kind of meta-commentary on the limits of liberal empathy or the position of the viewer. Can you tell me about the decision to open the film with this?

Savanah: That was a completely unscripted moment. I was having conversations with different mothers in front of the camera, and Erika Alexander, who plays Carmen, was asking them questions. It started out as scripted, and then would move into whatever they felt like discussing. Tiffany Garner, who is that person in the beginning of the film, wanted to talk from the heart about how she was feeling at that moment.

The reason why I brought it into the very beginning of the film was because, yes, it is a statement on empathy and stripping away judgment. That was kind of the goal of the film: Can we, as the audience, ever feel for a mother who makes difficult decisions during difficult times in their pregnancy? We oftentimes don’t want to empathize with that person, but can we? On the other side, when I heard Tiffany speaking, it set me on a different path, because I was like, ‘I don’t think I can ever put someone else in Gia’s shoes. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that.’ That was kind of a goal I had for filmmaking. But I love that [Tiffany] says, ‘you can’t put yourself in my shoes, but you can walk beside me. And don’t judge me, but you can be there next to me.’ And I think that was really powerful for me because I was thinking about [how] we’re going to use this observational tone and feel like we’re in the room with Gia through this whole thing. Can we be her friend? I think that’s really interesting, because it’s both the words out of [Tiffany’s] mouth, and also a statement on filmmaking and viewership.

Tia: In that vein of non-judgment, can you tell me about your vision for the cinematography? It’s so grounded and patient.

Savanah: I always really wanted to observe our characters rather than forcing any sort of emotion on them. A lot of the cast members are experienced actors, and I wanted to give them the opportunity to just do the scene from start to finish—we were not shooting tons of coverage, and that enables [actors] to not have to repeat themselves ridiculous amounts of times because we don’t have the finances for many cameras.

The other side of it was that just because [the characters] are going through a traumatic experience doesn’t mean we have to shoot them in shadows and dark with a shaky camera—it already feels like trauma! You don’t need to force it. I wanted to highlight the communal aspects: the color palette, the rawness, the feeling of people coming together despite the hardships they’re facing. I think the way to do that is through objectively showing the light and color and showing a softness to the image that makes it feel like it could have been your story.

Tia: Kelsey Lu’s score also plays a huge role in the mood of this film. How did you find the right sound for the film?

Savanah: I was a fan before the film was made, and [Kelsey Lu] had a short window to make the score—something like six weeks or two months with a finalized edit. They started by just watching the visuals and responding [to them]. I wanted them to bring themself into it. So they took themes and ideas in place, and we talked about broader strokes: What is the intention behind the music here? Could there be no music? How do we create space with sound and music? Then, they would take that and make their own version, and we brought these really talented musicians who improvised over their score—sometimes pianists that they really respected, or a drummer that they knew for years, a saxophonist—and they all intuitively responded to the scene. It felt like a response to the images.

“I was thinking about the trauma that you inherit, but also the beauty that you inherit, the power that you inherit.”

Tia: Visually, it seemed like all of the environmental motifs also inflect Gia’s unavowed need for care—the trees that form networks of support, the roots that insist upon a foundational connectedness. How did the ‘earth’ component of Earth Mama come to be?

Savanah: I was thinking a lot about this lineage of Black women—this umbilical cord that connects us to our mothers and then, eventually, to our children, and what happens when that’s cut. I was thinking about the trauma that you inherit, but also the beauty that you inherit, the power that you inherit; it’s very similar in a way to thinking about when you’re walking through redwoods and their connection to each other, the generations that they’ve been living on this planet for. I wanted to pay homage to this ancestry and this lineage in a way that felt respectful and wasn’t just through dialogue between people, but that you felt it—you felt what goes on inside [Gia], her inner worlds, through the visuals on screen.

Tia: While a lot of films focus on the pro-life versus pro-choice binary, Earth Mama really expands that to think through what it means to be allowed or able to raise a child in the first place, as well as the way in which ‘choice’ is actually sometimes an oversimplification, perhaps especially for racialized mothers. What do you think your film adds to an understanding of reproductive politics or motherhood right now?

Savanah: I was thinking a lot about this because while we were filming, there was a lot going on in the US. I guess one thing that kept coming up in my mind was this idea that if you don’t want to have your child, just give it up for adoption, right? Like, it’s simple and it’s easy. In the documentary, one woman talks about how her soul was humming after she gave her child up for adoption—like her body still wanted to hold and be with her child. She was still lactating. There were still physiological effects.

I think this film hopefully brings into the conversation [the idea] that the decision to give a child up for adoption is not an easy one. And it is specific for every community, but there is a lot of love and pain and suffering, and it might not just be a simple solution to a bigger problem that we’re seeing in the system. I don’t think I have any specific answer, but I hope the film creates conversation [about] the complications and the many layers around the subject matter.

Tia: I heard you say that you decided not to make this a documentary because of concerns about what it would mean to follow someone through the worst days of their life and to possibly be complicit in overexposing or indicting them. Do you have a sense of when you’d like to tell stories as documentary versus fiction, and how you want to navigate that going forward?

Savanah: It is subject to subject. I found that there’s so much you can tell with a fictionalized film, in that you’re not concerned as much about it being one [specific] person’s story. [Gia] could be an accumulation of 10 people’s stories. If I was to do a documentary feature for this, it felt like I would potentially get in the way of someone getting their children back. That feels unethical to me—it’s not what I want to do.

Sometimes it’s about sharing a more honest story. I think fictionalizing enables the true thoughts and feelings behind the subject to come through. Sometimes, in [documentary] interviews, I can see people changing their dialogue—everybody’s conscious [that] there are cameras there, even if the camera is hidden. I don’t know, I think it’s all manipulation, and, in a way, it’s just about how you want to manipulate sensitively, about how you share the story you want to tell in a way that feels honest, and sometimes that is [through] fictionalizing it.