Savanah Leaf’s films explore personal growth and society’s effect on individual experience
The ex-Olympian talks to us about telling the stories of communities through filmmaking, and her upcoming work The Heart Still Hums.
How many people can say that they are both an accomplished creative, but also an Olympian? We reckon the numbers are pretty few, but Savanah Leaf stands firmly among them. Born in south London, Savanah has spent much of her life in the US and first began taking videos and photos of her team GB volleyball mates, who she competed alongside at the London 2012 Olympics, the same year she got injured.
“I had always been an artist, drawing and painting a lot. Then I got pushed, in a way, into questioning what I would be or do after sports,” she tells It’s Nice That. Initially she wanted to go down the psychology route but she couldn’t afford to go back to university and even if she had been granted a full scholarship, “I’m not sure if I could have taken another five years of studying,” she explains. Directing and photography therefore presented itself as a way to connect with others through ideas and storytelling, feeling like a combination of everything she wanted to do, and had done in the past: “working in a team environment, doing psychology, and being creative.”
Today, Savanah produces beautiful and tender films with explore personal growth and society’s effect on individual experience. With themes such as these, it’s no surprise that Savanah cites storytelling as the most exciting part of filmmaking for her. “Having the opportunity to share stories that I feel like I haven’t seen before is the most empowering thing in the world,” she says. “Storytelling is incredibly unifying and spiritual, if you think about it, it’s history in our communities.”
In terms of what these stories are, however, it varies massively but a standout from her portfolio is a music video for Marvin’s Gaye’s What’s Going On. The video was the first of Universal Music’s Never Made series which saw contemporary directors creating music videos for song that never had one. The film begins with footage of Marvin Gaye on stage before cutting to footage of Michigan in 2019 and news coverage of the current water crisis plaguing Flint. Marvin Gaye’s voice then provides an emotional backdrop to footage telling of myriad other racial and social struggles affecting US citizens. “The film highlights the continuing relevance of Marvin’s question nearly 50 years later,” Savanah adds.
Visually, What’s Going On stands out for its filmic qualities but Savanah explains that her visual language changes depending on what story she’s telling. “That being said I think other people have detected patterns and trends in my visual language,” she adds. “I think if you asked the people around me they would say there is a focus on human emotional experiences, with an attention to physical expression and surreal metaphors.”
Savanah’s upcoming release The Heart Still Hums is a film we’re eager to see. It’s an incredibly personal documentary and one Savanah co-directed with her friend Taylor Russell. The full film will be 30 minutes long and tells of several women in Sacramento, California who have encountered Child Protective Services because they were dealing with drug addictions and/or financial difficulties while pregnant. It’s also a story about adoption, and is inspired by Savanah’s close relationship to her sister and her birth mother.
No matter what the topic though, whether it’s something she’s experienced herself or a story someone else has recounted to her, Savannah clearly has an ability to connect with others. She handles sensitive topics adeptly, translating them through beautiful cinematography into captivating and moving films. It’s a medium she clearly has a passion for and she concludes by saying: “I feel lucky every day that I get a chance to be part of our history through storytelling.”
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.