London-born Savanah Leaf went from volleyball-playing Olympian to celebrated film director and photographer, crafting nuanced mediations that explore race, gender and culture. After achieving her dream of competing in the Olympics in 2012, Savanah realized she wanted to work towards the goal of making a life in art, after many years of exploring it as a hobby. She is now part of Free The Bid, a platform created to promote the talents of women in film in order to diversify those who get work in the industry—a much needed initiative considering the stark gender imbalance.
Her recent short film, “The Ayes Have It,” takes the work of poet Tiana Clark as its focus—her poem of the same name is a moving exploration of the murders of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin. The film Savanah created brings another level to the poem by interweaving it with her own experiences and turning it into beautifully shot moving image. We spoke to Savanah about the making of the the film and her path to directing.
The Ayes Have It brings to life a poem by Tiana Clark. How did you first come into contact with Tiana’s work?
Savanah Leaf: A charity called Motion Poems approached me and showed me a bunch of different poets. I was automatically drawn to Tiana Clark’s work. This poem, in particular, had a connection to my own life experiences, being mixed-race and having lived in the South and in California. It felt like the poem was speaking to my own story, as well many others in the US.
What led to your decision to use this poem as the basis for your own meditation on mixed-race identity in contemporary America? What ideas about race and the current state of our country were you hoping to explore in the film?
It’s interesting; we never really speak about what it feels like to be mixed-race in America. I mean, I’ve never even heard people use that term: "mixed-race." Everyone just calls me black in America. So for me, the story behind the poem was something that I really wanted to explore and share with others.
I was living in the Bay Area during the Oscar Grant murder and trials, and then living in Florida during the Trayvon Martin case, and during these times, I noticed a lot changing around me. There were people, from both sides, acting on the defense and hanging up their flags, buying more guns, and almost preparing for some sort of war. Then there were other people who were alarmed by the tragedies, and were shouting and screaming for peace and unity in the streets. Then there were people like me, who were quietly upset and angry, but didn’t really know what to do or say because, ultimately, we weren’t surprised. History had taught us that this would happen. It was all very surreal, like a nightmare. I remember walking through the streets and thinking how unsettling it was that this felt so normal; how scary it was that I wasn’t even surprised that young black boys had been murdered by people that were supposed to be keeping their communities safe.
For this film, I wanted to explore how the murders of young black men in America have a deep rooted, physiological effect on the people in our communities — an effect that goes beyond the violence and protests that we see on the news and on our socials. I wanted to explore this through the lens of young, mixed-race women who have a more internal response to these tragedies.
You have a unique path to directing, as a former Olympian! What was your journey to becoming a filmmaker?
When I moved to the states at a young age, I started playing sports, but I had always been obsessed with the arts. I saw other teens who looked like me go on to have their entire university paid for by playing sports, so I definitely saw sports as a way for me to succeed in life. On the flip side, I loved drawing and I loved creating in different ways, so I kept doing that on the side. I eventually started playing division one [sports] at university. When I got there, the art department wouldn’t allow me to play sports and be part of their art program, so I decided to study psychology and human/social development, then take electives in the arts on the side.
It wasn’t until I got injured while I was playing in Puerto Rico that everything sort of hit me. I never loved to practice volleyball . . . I really just loved to perform in games and play for an audience. I felt that was the time that I could really connect with people, and inspire young girls. But it felt like something was missing. I was connecting to and inspiring young girls with my actions, but I wasn’t really sharing my life experiences in a way where I could make those girls feel less alone in the world. So I decided to combine everything I loved—psychology, art and a connection with the audience—and start making films.
What kinds of stories do you hope to explore in your directorial work?
Human stories. And that doesn’t necessarily mean with human characters, but just stories with strong human emotions. People often think because I am a woman I will only make films with lead women characters, or because I am half black I will only make films about black people. That’s not the case. I just want to tell stories that are truthful and honest to me, because that’s what connects with others. If I had to define the films I want to make, I would say they should be challenging, they should inspire question-asking, and conversation between people around the world. They should be daring and unfiltered, and they should make you feel something.
What do you think the world stands to gain from more inclusive storytelling opportunities?
Films, commercials, music videos, and content have a HUGE impact on our society and communities. If we want the stories we see to speak to the people within our communities and the lives they are living, then we need people in front of and behind the camera who aren’t just making lazy generalizations about race, gender, and/or sexual orientation. We need people who are willing to challenge execs and tell them no, when they see something that isn’t accurate.
For example, I often see films trying to promote "black lives matter" that are made by people who haven’t done the research, or who haven’t spent time with people living the experiences. Their films end up actually doing the reverse of what they were intending them to do; they perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination instead of promoting empathy, unity, and love. Ultimately, we need representation, in order to make films that actually create a positive impact on our communities.