This is me: Savanah Leaf's journey from volleyball to filmmaking

Lessons learned from my time as a professional athlete.

I’ve always felt in the middle of the ocean – I’m neither here nor there. I spent my early life in Bonnington Square, a small community in Vauxhall, London. When I was 10 I moved to the States because my mum got a job there. I feel British in my bones and skin, but I’ve had so many influences from my upbringing in America. I had this outsider’s look of what it’s like to grow up there, and that’s very prominent in my work, where I take on a lot of American social issues.

I never played sports until I got to America, but I was well into music and art. I was painting, doing photography and drawing all the time, but I knew I had to do sports to go to university and get a scholarship. I first studied in San Jose State University’s illustration programme, but while there I realised I couldn’t do both [sports and art]. I basically gave up on art, and ended up transferring to the University of Miami where I studied psychology. In between those years I tried out for the Olympic volleyball team. I knew the Olympics were in London and I wanted to represent my home country.

It was an amazing experience to play for Team GB. It’s the peak of what you dream about when you’re an athlete, especially in women’s sports because there aren’t a lot of professional leagues for women. The London Olympics were insane because you had the support of an entire nation, and all my family were there supporting me. It felt like the whole country had a hand on your back.

After university I played volleyball professionally in Turkey and Puerto Rico. I was taking photographs and videos of my team and I would post them online for all the fans. Then I got injured in Puerto Rico, and decided to take a year off. I did a crash course in music video production, and was completely obsessed with it. I called up the team I was going to play with next and said I’m still injured, and I moved to London and started working at Biscuit [Filmworks] as a sales assistant. From there I quit my job and had some money saved up, and I made my first film.

There are a lot of parallels between film and sports in terms of working with a team towards a goal, motivating and inspiring people, and pulling the talents out of them. When you’re on the court playing volleyball, everything’s about instincts, and as a director, 90% of your job is about reacting to things. You prep so much and then it’s about reacting on the day to all the issues that pop up.

As an athlete I had a few coaches tell me that I couldn’t say whatever I wanted to in interviews, and I was so angry about that because I felt like my voice wasn’t being heard. I always had a rebellious, protest side to me. When I got into film I realised people want to hear your personal story because that’s how they connect to their own experiences. The stuff I’m doing on political issues, I’m trying to do from a grounded narrative and individual perspective so it doesn’t feel like a topic that’s out of your grasp.

I’m mixed race, and when I moved to America some people would ask me what country I was adopted from – they didn’t realise that Britain has black people in it, or that a white woman could have a mixed-race child. In film, I’ve had people ask: "Why did you get that job? Is it because you’re a mixed-race woman?" There’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s going to take time to shift. It’s not just about race and gender, it’s also about your socioeconomic background. People still need to be speaking up, promoting different voices and searching for them.

That being said, there’s progress that people should get excited about. We’re in a beautiful time now where I’ve seen more black filmmakers than ever before. I never had those kinds of role models – I saw Spike Lee and that was it. More and more, people are getting excited about diverse voices and hearing other stories. That’s really amazing. I think slowly but surely we’ll get there.

Savanah Leaf is a director and photographer at Academy Films. Her latest film, the first in Universal Music’s "Never Made" series for great songs that never had a music video, is for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic What’s Going On and explores racial and social struggles in the US. She has also worked with brands including Nike, Fila and Adidas. Before her film career, she played for Great Britain’s national women’s volleyball team at the London 2012 Olympics.

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