Savanah Leaf’s Powerful ‘Earth Mama’ from A24 Wins SFFILM Audience Award

Savanah Leaf’s feature debut “Earth Mama” is starting to look like an early awards season prospect for distributor A24. After successful premieres at both Sundance and New Directors/New Films, the drama about a young Black mother’s fight to wrest her kids from the foster care system just won the Audience Award at SFFILM, also known as the San Francisco International Film Festival. “Earth Mama” is notably a Bay Area-grown production, with former Olympian athlete turned filmmaker Leaf casting non-professional actors for the feature.

IndieWire shares the full list of Golden Gate Award winners out of SFFILM, now in its 66th year and which ran from April 12 through 23, below.

The prize winners range from narrative features to documentaries and shorts. The awards are also notable as a qualifier for films under 40 minutes for the Oscars. Previous Golden Gate Award winners include Panah Panahi, Reid Davenport, Nadav Lapid, Marlon Riggs, Céline Sciamma, Jia Zhang-ke, Stanley Nelson, and Tasha Van Zandt.

New Directors Award Winner
“Snow and the Bear”
Directed by Selcen Ergun (Turkey)

Jury Statement: “Selcen Ergun is the winner of the New Directors Award for her debut ‘Snow and the Bear,’ which showcases her keen eye for scenery, suspense, and character development as we become entranced with small-town drama and the eternal challenge of man vs nature. Asli, the main character, emotes beautifully, reflecting Selcen’s sensitive direction, and we shivered alongside her as she searched for the truth in a never-ending winter.“

McBaine Documentary Feature Award Winner
“Smoke Sauna Sisterhood”
Directed by Anna Hints (Estonia, France, Iceland; 2023; 89 min)

Jury Statement: “Our choice for the Documentary Feature is ‘Smoke Sauna Sisterhood’ for its stunning intimacy, both with its participants and with its visual style. Anna Hints’s subtle, intentional filmmaking transports viewers to Southern Estonia, allowing audiences to be fully immersed in the sauna tradition. Equal parts breathtaking and heartbreaking, Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is a portal, allowing us to feel we are sitting on the bench alongside the women who have come to partake in this sacred ritual to heal.”

McBaine Bay Area Documentary Feature Award
Home Is a Hotel
Directed by Kevin Duncan Wong, Todd Sills + Kar Yin Tham (USA)

Jury Statement: “There is not a more timely or important film for the Bay Area in its current housing crisis — ‘Home Is a Hotel’ is essential viewing to promote empathy for those who are faced with the insurmountable challenges of affordability in San Francisco. Made by local filmmakers, this critical film thoughtfully captures an overlooked population worthy of our attention.”

Golden Gate Narrative Short Winner
“Sèt Lam”
Directed by Vincent Fontano (France)

Jury Statement: “For its stunning use of image and sound to frame a poetic and unique narrative within a fully immersive environment brimming with authenticity, vision, and emotional resonance, and guided by a confident filmmaking prowess, the jury has awarded the Narrative prize to Vincent Fontano’s ‘Sèt Lam.’”

Golden Gate Documentary Short Winner
“Direcciones” (“Addresses”)
Directed by María Luisa Santos + Carlo Nasisse (Costa Rica)

Jury Statement: “For its strong exploration of a cultural idiosyncrasy, the jury awards ‘Direcciones’ (‘Addresses’) with the Documentary Shorts award. Through its beautiful cinematography, sound, and story, the film tells an intricate story that transcends space and convention. In a category with very strong films, this stood out amongst its peers.”

Golden Gate Animated Short Winner
“By Water”
Directed by Iyabo Kwayana (USA, Singapore)

Jury Statement: “’By Water’ is crafted with a masterful use of mixed mediums, along with a searing intimacy. Iyabo Kwayana leaves an unforgettable impression on the viewer, with a stunning soundscape and gorgeous, gentle character work. For these reasons, we are happy to award ‘By Water’ with the Best Animated Short prize.”

Bay Area Short Film Prize
“Still Waters”
Directed by Aurora Brachman (USA; 2021)

Jury Statement: “For its achingly honest portrayal, personal bravery, and touching exploration of family bonds, ‘Still Waters’ by Aurora Brachman is the jury choice for the Bay Area Shorts Prize. The jury felt like viewers were invited into intimate and sacred moments which, in turn, gave space to find new meaning in the power of relationships and storytelling.”

Mid-Length Winner
“What These Walls Won’t Hold”
Directed by Adamu Chan (USA)

Jury Statement: “The jury applauds the film for its strong point of view and unwavering look at life inside San Quentin. Filmmaker Adamu Chan demonstrates his dedication to the craft by persevering with an inspiring and necessary tale of incarcerated life during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. The jury was moved by the relationships and voices of the individuals captured in this film and thereby awards ‘What These Walls Won’t Hold’ with the 2023 Best Mid-Length Award.”

Cine Latino Jury Award
“Daughter of Rage” (“La Hija de todas las Rabias”)
Directed by Laura Baumeister (Nicaragua, Mexico, The Netherlands, Germany, France, Norway, Spain)

Jury Statement: “We chose the film for its nuanced portrait of an untold story about women—an 11-year-old girl and her mother—surviving on Nicaragua’s largest landfill amidst political turmoil. ‘Daughter of Rage’ provides an in-depth journey of a young girl coming of age who has been separated from her mother. The film’s magical realism provides a unique perspective, carrying the viewer through this quiet yet riveting story.”

Golden Gate Short Family Film Prize Winner
“El Moño”
Directed by Luis Fernando Puente + Lizde Arias (USA)

Jury Statement: “For its earnest, energetic, and inventive use of storytelling that charms and engages audiences of all ages, the jury selected ‘El Moño’ as the first prize winner for the Family Film Shorts category. Exploring intergenerational traditions through the use of dazzling magical realism, the jury was captivated by seeing life and all its whimsy unfold in front of the eyes of a young girl. ‘El Moño’ is a reminder [of] how important it is to believe, with the help of a little imagination.”

Family Film Honorable Mention
“New Moon”
Directed by Jeff Le Bars + Jérémie Balais (France, USA)

Jury Statement: “The jury gives special recognition to the film ‘New Moon’ for its fresh and powerful use of poetic storytelling. A love letter to mothers and their sons, this film uses theatrical narration to explore the importance of dreams and wishes, despite the hardships that face Black Americans growing up in the later half of the twentieth century.”

Youth Works Prize Winner
“My Sisters in the Stars: The Story of Lee Yong-soo”
Directed by Ian Kim (USA, South Korea)

Youth Works Honorable Mention
“American Ball Game”
Directed by Teja Mettu + Krish Mysoor (USA 2022)

Audience Award — Narrative Feature
“Earth Mama”
Directed by Savanah Leaf

Audience Award — Documentary Feature
“Home is a Hotel”
Directed by Kevin Duncan Wong, Todd Sills + Kar Yin Tham

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