CFR Executive Director Tehra Coles in Conversation with “Earth Mama” Writer & Director Savanah Leaf
At just 29, former Olympian Savanah Leaf has already transitioned into her second career: that of a successful film director. Leaf’s debut feature-length movie, Earth Mama, premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and hit theaters this past summer. The film follows Gia (played by Tia Nomore), a Black single mother with two children in the foster system, and highlights the racial inequities embedded in systems of family policing.
Sadly, Gia’s harrowing experiences navigating these systems are neither isolated nor rare for many Black and Brown parents. At the Center for Family Representation (CFR), we have worked with countless clients with stories similar to Gia’s. As Savanah shares in her conversation with CFR Executive Director Tehra Coles, Earth Mama has offered a compelling counterpoint to traditional narratives that portray systems of family policing as “heroic,” focusing on the emotional anguish and instability they can cause for parents and children. Learn more about Savanah and her work in our exclusive interview below, and check out the trailer for Earth Mama here.
Interview lightly edited for clarity.
Tehra Coles (TC): Savanah, it is so nice to meet you. I had the opportunity to see Earth Mama when you had the premiere in Brooklyn, so that was really exciting. I would love to just hear about what inspired you to make this film.
Savanah Leaf (SL): The first draft was initially written as a way for me to process and remember my sister’s birth mother — when I met my sister for the first time. So it was kind of me reflecting on those moments through two pivotal scenes: one being at the hospital and one being at the restaurant.
That was the first step or stage of the story, and the next stage was that I did a short documentary that served as emotional research for the film, and so I met with a lot of mothers, some of whom had children who had been taken away from them, some of whom had given their children up for adoption, and some of whom were the result of all of that. Some of those women ended up being in the feature length as well, but some of them just became friends or acquaintances.
That became a short documentary and from there we continued to develop this story with further research around what it means to be a “fit” parent in this country and who made up those rules and it ultimately affects the children. I used that research to adapt the script to become an accumulation of all these things. Yes it is personal, but it is also so much more than that. It also grapples with how much of my own self was like all the mothers who have impacted me throughout my life, whether they be my mom or mothers of my friends, friends who were kind of mothers to me, all of these different roles related to motherhood and how they’ve impacted me.
“I think we all have to come together and figure out how we can create more humane conditions, not just for mothers and fathers, but for the children as well.”
TC: That’s so powerful. A lot of what you’re saying makes total sense because it definitely came across in the film itself. And I think that question, “What does it mean to be fit to be a parent?” is really relevant to our work at CFR. Our clients are constantly being told that they are unfit to parent, to visit in some instances, and to make basic decisions about the wellbeing of their children. Approximately 92% of our clients are Black or Brown and they are all poor. I think that seeing Gia and what was going on with her was like watching some of the aspects of our clients’ lives that we don’t get to see as their public defenders.
It was also really amazing to see the family policing system presented in such a similar way to how our clients experience it. I am curious as to how you believe the film offers a counterpoint to the opinions that are out there now about the foster system?
SL: For me, what was really important in writing this was to allow the audience to sit with Gia through a lot of these experiences, including trying to make all of these appointments and take all of these classes. She had to try to tick all of these boxes that had been set forth and meet all of these requirements – try to do every little thing but also make enough money to survive.
What’s wild is that they are having to do all of these requirements and they are not able to spend any time with themselves, and that’s a thing I really sat with with Tia, who plays Gia in the role. What was special for us was that Tia had just become a mom while she was doing this and so she was learning what that feels like for herself. She was learning what it feels like to find a new self, thinking about someone else just as much as she was thinking about herself – in fact more than she was thinking about herself. Oftentimes she would be weeping for herself. That’s what I saw – like, yes, everyone is doing so much for their kids but at the same time trying to maintain themselves and keep themselves strong and I wanted to show that feeling.
I think something that does not get seen is the impossibility of trying to maintain yourself, your sense of self worth through all of this. That was really important for me. Another thing that has been really important is that I don’t think there is an easy, tick-the-box solution to solve all of this, and I wanted to give multiple sides to this story – yes, she has a case worker who has to fill out all of these forms and might have come from a similar situation as her, and she’s just having to step in there and fill out all of those forms even if she doesn’t want to be there. She doesn’t want to be there, either, and I guess I wanted to show those layers as well – there is no simple solution.
I can’t state a simple solution for everybody; I think we all have to come together and figure out how we can create more humane conditions, not just for mothers and fathers, but for the children as well.
TC: That makes a lot of sense. I know Earth Mama speaks to the everyday realities of many mothers, but I’m curious to know about the response you’ve gotten to the film.
SL: Well it’s interesting – I don’t get to go to every screening so I don’t know how everybody responds, but of the screenings I have gone to, especially the ones that have mothers who have been in these situations, I think it’s been very powerful. People stand up and they share their stories and they take this as an opportunity to share their experiences. I guess it creates a safe space in a lot of theaters.
Something that has also been surprising to me is that I’ll be sitting in a room and I didn’t realize my best friend or someone else’s friend has been in this situation – they have been so afraid to share it because they don’t want people to judge them for having their children taken away and living with that, and not being able to talk to people about it is an isolating thing. The beauty in this has been creating these spaces for people to speak and share their stories. No one story is exactly the same, but there are parallels in a lot of people’s stories, and that’s what’s been coming up.
I’ve had men come up to me after the screening – even white men – crying, and they can’t speak because they are crying, and then they reveal to me that they were pulled away from their moms. Very unexpected stories I had no idea about… I think we don’t realize how this is a hand’s reach away from everybody. We just have to break down those barriers to speak about it and the stigma around it. That is what’s been beautiful about it, and that’s what’s been really rewarding for me is just creating that space for conversation.
“It breaks my heart thinking about it – that the hospital could be a place where someone has their kids taken away.”
TC: That is the amazing power of storytelling, encouraging people to share their experiences and drawing them out that way. One of the big things that happen in the film is that toward the end, after receiving the positive drug test, Gia has to make a big decision. I think that decision speaks to something that advocates here in New York have been spending a lot of time on, which is how pregnant people are treated when they are engaging in drug use, and what that means for their ability to parent after that. I am curious how you feel about the punishment of pregnant people who engage in drug use, and why you chose to incorporate that as part of the film?
SL: For me – for this film, what was important was to show the lack of choice. Putting a child up for adoption is a choice but it isn’t really a choice. There’s not a great and easy way to go about it, because Gia also knows what it means for her and her kids if they do go into the foster system. I don’t think adoption is necessarily the solution. What she ends up choosing – and sorry for people who have not seen the movie yet – this is what she ends up choosing, but that is not the solution to me. That is not what the film is saying.
How I feel about it – it pains me. Something I think is super important to me in this film is that this is Gia’s story, but she also comes from a lineage of Black women before her, and that lineage is women who have not just been mothers to their own children but mothers to everyone else’s children, for so many generations, and they have also had their children taken away from them. Everything leading up to Gia making this decision is not just about that moment but about everything. When she weeps, it’s not just about this. I think there is not enough conversation about the weight of all of that. There is no way for women to heal on that lineage.
I was sitting with that a lot, how do I bring that into the film in these ways? Especially during the hospital scene – it breaks my heart. I sit with it all the time and it breaks my heart thinking about it – that the hospital could be a place where someone has their kids taken away. In that moment – the physicality of bearing a child and all that you have done – the physicality of someone being left by themselves afterwards is… How do you heal from that? Even if you get reunited with your children down the line, how do you heal from that? I don’t think I have a solution, or if you’re asking for that right now, but I guess this film is about saying, “I see you.” I see what you are dealing with and going through, and I hope in a way that this film allows people to be seen.
TC: As someone who has two children, I understand that after you have a baby you want to bond with the baby, hold the baby, and have that moment. To have that moment taken away from you, without any support offered, without any resources, is something that is hard to comprehend, and I think it is hard for people who are not connected to this at all to even image that this is a thing that our society does, so to see it laid out like this in your film was really powerful. I definitely agree that it’s a moment where you are saying “I see you,” and highlighting that moment is so important.
SL: That is what that was about – sitting with her through that. In the short documentary that we did, someone said her body wanted to hold her child, her breasts were still lactating – that’s all she wanted to do. She said her soul was humming. I thought that was the most beautiful way of putting it: your soul is humming; it’s lingering on this note. Neither the mother nor the child will heal fully from that moment being broken, and that sits in our system.
TC: It is so powerful. What’s next for you? Do you see yourself touching on this issue again? I know that the film was just released in theaters so maybe it’s too early to think about the next one.
SL: What’s next is trying to show this film not just in America but outside of the U.S., so that is what we’re doing. It’s a very U.S.-centric story with the system, but in different countries it’s the same shit. That’s the first thing, sharing this film with people outside the U.S.
I made this whole film about motherhood, so I am thinking about maybe doing something about fatherhood, but I’m not sure. That’s a whole other thing. I’m trying to focus on this and getting it to as many people as possible – it’s a small movie so we really have to push it out there and make sure people can see it. Any way people can share it with their friends or family members or whoever they think would want to watch it is great.
TC: Absolutely. It is absolutely worth watching – it’s fabulous. Thank you for highlighting what’s happening to so many mothers across the country every day, and the horrible decisions they are being forced into making. We really appreciate it.
SL: Thank you so much, I appreciate you guys for having me! Thank you.
Images courtesy of A24 Films.
This interview was published in November 2023.