Movies

Earth Mama Is A Unflinching Look At Motherhood & The Foster System

Filmmaker Savanah Leaf opens up about her powerful feature film debut.

With relentless compassion and intimacy, the new film Earth Mama sings, even as it tells a heart-wrenching story of contemporary Black motherhood in America. In it, filmmaker Savanah Leaf (a former Olympic Volleyball player — she played on the UK’s 2012 team) tells the story Gia, a very pregnant young Black mother in the Bay Area struggling to get her two older children out of the foster care system. The power and precision of this film belie the fact that it is Leaf’s feature debut. I spoke to Leaf, who was born in England and raised in the Bay Area, about the film’s most tender moments, the short documentary film that inspired it, and how she hopes Gia’s story of motherhood will resonate with audiences.

A few years ago, you made The Heart Still Hums, a short documentary that circled the topic of the foster care system and the impact it has on both the mothers whose children are taken away and the kids themselves. What brought you to that story, and into writing and directing Earth Mama?

I wrote my first draft of Earth Mama, which was inspired by meeting my sister's birth mother at 16 years old. It was also very much fictionalized, because I was imagining what she was going through and the difficulties she was facing with Child Protective Services (CPS), and how difficult it was to kind of tick all these boxes around what it means to be “fit to parent.” I was also thinking about all the mothers that impacted my own life and my upbringing, including my own mother and my friends’ mothers, older girls who were on the volleyball and basketball teams, and all my teachers, coaches, all these people that have impacted my life in various different ways.

The trailer for the 2023 film, Earth Mama.

After that first draft, I decided to make this short documentary, which follows five different people — some of which who have given their child up for adoption, some of whose children have been taken away from them by CPS, and then some of which were actually children who were in the foster care system and now are mothers themselves. So I was looking at it from a lot of different angles. That became emotional research for me, and it gave a lot of breath and depth to the script.

From there, I started to do further research around the systems — reading books, articles, and [gathering] firsthand experiences of other mothers and fathers who were going through the experience of trying to get their children back, and what difficulties they were facing and, emotionally, the impact of that. And that developed over the next three years, into the film that it is today.

I have to ask about the use of the umbilical cord in the film. I loved how most of the times we see it in the film — and it comes back again and again — are moments of magical realism. It really spoke to me as a mother, and to the elemental and very physical fact of motherhood. Of Gia’s undeniable physical motherhood, whether her kids are allowed to be with her or not.

Tia Nomore as Gia in Savanah Leaf’s 2023 film, Earth Mama.A24 / Earth Mama

I’m not a mother myself, but when I was 16 years old, and my sister was a baby, and I remember just watching this cord dry up and fall off. I was like, this so weird and alien but also very symbolic. I was thinking a lot about the connection you have to your own mother. At times, this lineage, or this connection — you want it to break apart, you want it to fall off, you want to break apart from the trauma that you're inheriting. And then, at other times, you want to get closer, and feel that piece of your mother that will always remain inside of your body.

You know, in the whole film, we don't know much about Gia’s background at all. But in these ways, I think you can kind of feel it, even if we don't explicitly go through every little beat of her upbringing. That was important to me — thinking not just about her own mother, but her offspring, her child. Once that cord is cut, she's physically detaching and leaving her child, and maybe there's a part of her that wants to keep it connected forever, to keep her baby inside of her.

Tia Nomore as Gia visits with her older children in the movie Earth Mama.A24 / Earth Mama

The physical experience of motherhood — that animal quality of birth, lactation, and gestation — is so present in the film in a way that will resonate with all mothers. Nothing can stop the physical realities of motherhood for Gia, even though her world demands so much of her, and even though it has taken her kids.

Yeah. For me, that's really important. There are these physical things that you can't stop. And there's the healing, too, that you go through physically. I'm not a mother, but Tia [Nomore, who plays Gia] was a new mom, you know?

It was really important for me that whoever played Gia would be a new mom, because I wasn't coming into the story with that. And there's something about the way people carry themselves on screen, you know? I mean, she was still breastfeeding, she was still going through postpartum things. For her, the physicality of being Gia was very fresh in her memory and was still really in her body. Her body double was also pregnant and literally went into labor on set. She literally came from set and went to the hospital and gave birth. And luckily that was the last scene we needed her in, because after that, she had the baby.

Tia and her body double really connected. They were kind of feeding off of each other and teaching each other in those moments. Tia was studying her, how she was carrying her belly. Tia would be walking off set, and taking her fake belly and going into the community and seeing how people would respond to her or not respond to her, and taking that as kind of research for her role as well.

The subject matter here is so heavy, and those often-wordless moments when you linger on light over the water, or in the woods, are so beautiful — a chance to breathe with Gia amidst the storm of her life. I’m curious what drove you to have the natural world loom so large in Earth Mama?

There's so many reasons. Kind of like you said, it's a hard movie to watch. But also for Gia, it's so hard, and at times she needs an escape. Whether it's just watching a certain show on TV that takes her to a dreamscape or it's her mind finding an escape. Thinking about being in the Bay Area and finding this connection to your roots or lineage, or something that is so much bigger than yourself. I guess that's the symbology that it plays with — that there's this lineage of ancestors that come before you and there's an escape in connecting to that.

It’s also an escape for the audience, because to be able to digest it, you need that, just like Gia does.

In the film, you sometimes have people break the fourth wall and address the camera, sharing their experiences with the foster care system — either as parents or children. Were those fictionalized, too?

The woman that opens the film — those are entirely her words. She was in the short documentary I made. Since that documentary, she’s actually gotten all of her kids back, and is renting her own apartment, which is a huge development in her life. To see her get so powerful, and the fact that she wanted to share her story, just meant so much to this film.

Rapper Doechii, who plays Gia’s best friend Trina, with Tia Nomore in Earth Mama.A24 / Earth Mama

At one point, a man talks about the trauma of being taken away from his mother as a child and then being in the foster care system. He finishes by saying something like “But I never once was mad at my mama,” which feels particularly poignant in the context of the movie and the barriers and possibilities — or lack thereof — that Gia is wrestling with.

Yeah, he's really special. Our casting directors met him at kind of local fair, and he was like a month out of prison. He had been in prison for 10 years, since he was 17. The emotional impact of being taken away from his mother — what he went through bouncing around in different group homes throughout his life — he felt really impacted his whole life. Yet, through all of that, he still feels so much compassion and love for his mother. Those words really do hold that weight for his life.

I found your movie so powerful and so urgent. I hope everyone sees this film, but I am curious who you are hoping to reach, and where it all goes from here?

I hope a lot of people who are going through similar things — or have a friend that's going through them — that they feel honestly portrayed, and that they feel maybe less alone in what they're going through. That's one side of it. The other side is that I hope people can learn to walk beside, or feel compassion for, mothers who are going through such trauma and pain, and learn to look beyond the initial judgment they might have made about them for certain choices. Really just gaining compassion for others who are dealing with really tough circumstances, that's the greatest thing one could ask for. Hopefully, it creates more question-asking and conversation around how our system makes it really difficult for a lot of Black and Brown mothers.

Earth Mama is playing now in select cities, with a wider release coming July 28.