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Director and writer Savanah Leaf on her movie 'Earth Mama'

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The new movie "Earth Mama" tells the story of Gia. She's a mother of two who works for a portrait photographer helping stage perfect pictures of family life. But her life is far from perfect. Her two children were taken away by Child Protective Services, her prepaid phone is running out of credit and she's very pregnant. Gia is played by Tia Nomore in the movie "Earth Mama," which was written, directed and produced by Savanah Leaf. And Savanah Leaf joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SAVANAH LEAF: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: The main character, Gia, in the story - like, what really struck me about her is, like, here's this Black mother who has so few resources. And being a mother - Lord knows it requires a lot of resources and community and help. And Gia is expected to figure this out without any help. What did you want to show about Black motherhood?

LEAF: I wanted to show how much pressure, just first of all, there is for Black mothers. You know, Black mothers are not just mothering their own kids, but oftentimes throughout history have been mothering other people's children as well. And there's, like, this expectation to be a mother, to hold it all together, to be an incredible mother, a strong mother, even through so many financial difficulties, so many systems that are breaking families apart. So for me, I wanted to show how this mother is handling it all.

RASCOE: We see Gia very pregnant. We don't see, like, when her children were taken away. We don't know really about her relationship with her family other than her sister. Why keep the scope narrow?

LEAF: I was trying to think of, how can we make the audience feel with her during these, like, peak situations? How can we take people on that journey with her? And part of that is not giving an easy out - like, an easy, oh, yeah, this makes sense because this happened to her. That's an easy way to...

RASCOE: To try to justify, like...

LEAF: Exactly.

RASCOE: So if people go, oh, well, that happened to her in the past, so that's why. So then that - it's, like, justifies the sympathy. You have to have gone through...

LEAF: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...Certain things, and then people will give you a break.

LEAF: And then also on top of that, it enables you to think it could be this, it could be that, and it could be any of my friends. It could be someone I know.

RASCOE: This movie - like, it really deals with sacrifice. A mother could sacrifice everything to keep her kids with her in her own care. And that could be the sacrifice. Or sometimes a person may do things that are beneficial to their children, but it may keep them apart from their child. And that can be the sacrifice, right?

LEAF: Yeah. I think, like, she has to sacrifice so much of herself for her children, you know. And there's, like, a mutual love there. She's also seeking love for herself through her children. And you see that when she gets a visitation with her children here and there for a couple of hours a week, and she gets that kind of love back. So it's ultimately for her children, but it's also for herself because seeing her children do well, do better than maybe she did as a child, is something for herself as well.

RASCOE: Gia does have some consideration of giving her third child up for adoption. What is your relationship to adoption in your own life?

LEAF: The film was kind of inspired by my relationship to my own sister. When I was 16 years old, my mom adopted my sister. And I remember meeting her birth mother, and just feeling - I felt very connected to her, even though I was - only met her a few times. When I initially wrote the script, it was kind of inspired by my imagination of what she was going through.

Then I made this documentary short, which was kind of, like, emotional research and meeting with women who had their children taken away from them and also women who had given their children up for adoption and kind of feeling the weight of both of those scenarios. And then from there, I just did further research. And so it kind of expanded and became less of, like, a - you know, a reflection of this specific instance. But then it became almost like this collective shared story.

RASCOE: The film does a good job navigating - because it's complicated - like, adoption, foster care, especially, like, you know, in the Black community, like, this idea of, like, the best home for the child, and, like, the place that's more stable, but also the emotional weight of having your child taken from your arms. And so it can be very complicated.

LEAF: While I have obviously had an incredible experience with adoption just with my own sister, I wanted to dive into, like, what's behind that - what's the root of this scenario, but also all these other scenarios? That moment you're talking about when a child gets taken away from somebody's arms, whether it's adoption or whether it's CPS, the physicality of that - there's, like, this hum. Actually, someone in the documentary mentioned it, that - it just has always resonated with me. She said her soul was kind of humming after she gave her child up for adoption. Like, her body wanted to breastfeed, her body wanted to physically have a child in her arms, but her child was no longer there.

Women are having to live out - they're having, you know, carried a child for so many months, and then that child is then gone away from their body. Like, how do you keep going if you're dealing with addiction or financial difficulties? How do you physically, emotionally bear that weight? Nobody really talks about that.

RASCOE: Yeah. And to be clear, because it could be the safest situation for you to go. It could be the best situation. But even if it's the right situation, I think as you get older, you realize even doing the right thing for you can hurt like hell.

LEAF: Yeah. And there's still healing that needs to be done.

RASCOE: Before you became a filmmaker, you had a very different career. You were an Olympic volleyball player. Like, how do you make the transition to filmmaking? Now, I had a guess that if you are, like, driven enough to be an Olympic volleyball player, you just go hard into everything you do. Am I right about that, or am I wrong?

(LAUGHTER)

LEAF: Yeah. I mean, definitely, I think - I'm really tall, and I'm athletic. So first thing I did when I was young was play sports. And that's kind of how I defined myself. And then I got injured. And I had to kind of figure out what was the next thing I could possibly do while I was recovering.

So in that time, I just started exploring art. I found film, and it became this thing I became obsessed with. I felt like I could pour myself into it, but I also had that kind of work ethic from being an athlete. And I think when you learn young what it takes to have drive and to go through the ups and downs of sports, all of a sudden when you translate that into other work, you find yourself excelling because you know what it takes.

RASCOE: That's Savanah Leaf. She is the writer, director and producer of the new movie "Earth Mama." Thank you so much for being with us.

LEAF: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I appreciated this. This was a great conversation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.