Save the Bay: Filmmaker Helen Peña

Helen Peña is one of the eminently talented Miami creatives who contributed to Oolite Arts’ Save the Bay campaign. Their PSA is one of the several shorts from the initiative highlighting how locals can do their part to preserve the water quality of Biscayne Bay.

Now through Wednesday, August 11, you can rewatch their short and others (just scroll to the bottom of 👉 this page) and vote for your favorite. The winner will be announced on Friday, August 13, when they’ll receive an honorary People’s Choice Award along with a $1,000 prize.

Read on for our full Q&A with Peña. More info on Oolite Arts’ Save the Bay campaign and a roundup of The New Tropic’s interviews with participating filmmakers can be found right here.

Name and pronouns:

Helen Peña (she/they)

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your creative practices, and your ties to Miami-Dade?

My name is Helen. I’m a daughter of the Atlantic. I was born and raised in the Seminole-Tequesta land now known as Miami, Florida. I am a culture worker, organizer and filmmaker who makes creative offerings in service of movements for life and liberation on earth.

What’s your personal connection to Biscayne Bay? Do you have any personal formative memories that took place there?

The mangroves that surround it; the mystery and magic they hold; the way they grow and thrive in conditions not meant for their survival; the way they cleanse and provide life for everything around them. Big inspo. 

My other connection is the imagined visual memory of the Tequesta people living in the areas surrounding the bay, drinking straight out of its clear, fresh waters, abundant, fertile, and lively. 

What can you share with us about your PSA? What were the driving concepts or ideas that informed it?

When I was working on my first short film, When Angels Speak of Love, I followed a Black mother and survivor of incarceration through her healing journey. She had lost her older sister to AIDS, and never had a chance to say goodbye. Somehow we ended up on the beach where she cried, said goodbye to her sister’s spirit, and we ended up talking about mermaids. I haven’t stopped thinking about mermaids and Black women’s relationship to the Atlantic Ocean since then. 

That led to me researching the myriad folk stories about water spirits across the diaspora and mythologies like Igbo landing. For people of African descent who were stolen from our homelands and transported here in chains, the Atlantic Ocean — and Biscayne Bay as part of that ecosystem — is both a mass grave and the precedent to new life. As Black women, we feel that [sensation] and it pulls us to its bone. This settler project was created by stealing land, stealing life, and stealing people. We are living in the aftermath of that. But this colonial project tries to erase those memories, to numb us and keep us at the surface. The Siren [of the PSA] is about bringing us back to the depths, where we came from. It is about returning us to the full magic of our humanity and awakening us to protect life in these times. 

How do you think art can help inspire folks and shape conversations around pressing issues like climate change?

The main component holding up a world that prioritizes capital over life is the story we are telling ourselves about it. What would happen if we started to call out the truth? There is a battle happening in the realm of ideas, one that is both political and spiritual. The founding mythologies of this country and this economic system have told nothing but lies about the world and Black people’s place within it. Art, when used strategically, can create a new common sense, can help grow movements, can call us into being; it can provide resources, education, and the political unity required to move us forward.

What do you hope viewers take away from your PSA or how they might be inspired by it?

Capitalism is the most life-threatening disease on the planet. 

After June Jordan, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” After Fanon, “every spectator is a coward or a traitor.” Injustice is happening here, there, and all around us. We have to be active participants in shaping the world we want to see. No one is coming to save or rescue us. It’s up to us to rebel against capitalism and protect life, for the sake of us all. 

Whether in the short or long term, what are the most immediate steps people can take to help Save the Bay?

No amount of recycling we do on an individual level can undo the harm and violence that capitalism and colonialism have done. The only way to protect the bay, the earth, our lives, and those of future generations is to fight against it. Learn from indigenous methods of protecting the land; bring your gifts to the movement; create, unite, organize, wherever you are.