It'd be easy to dismiss Linda Fenstermaker's Here I Breathe as twee. The Seattle experimental filmmaker's new short film is a collage of grainy landscapes and what look like family photos of women—an open field at dusk, a photo of a woman in a canoe held in front of a river, an up-close shot of sunflowers twitching in the wind.
The images play out under Fenstermaker's calmly spoken narration, which begins over a 1950s photo of a young woman staring into the camera with a blank, almost defiant expression. "Rise, hold steady, fall," says Fenstermaker. "Falling out of a tree off those strong, steady knees into flowing waters on soft skin. "
Here I Breathe screens at NW Film Center this week along with several other of the filmmaker's works. Fenstermaker, who will attend the Portland screening, describes her impressionistic, experimental works as concerned with female representation. In many of her films, that kind of commentary is overt. 2014's (Fe)(Male) is a silent black-and-white film that playfully mismatches body parts of cut-up 1950s photos of men and women.
But at her most powerful, Fenstermaker simply insists on taking quiet, soft things seriously. Shot on warm, lo-fi 16mm film, Here I Breathe dwells in sentimental images—a broken robin's egg, a hand stroking wildflowers drying on a wall—soundtracked to vocalist Michele Finkelstein's wordless, folk pop harmonies looping in the background. But for all its concern with pretty scenery, it doesn't romanticize beauty, and to dismiss Here I Breathe simply as gooey sentiment would miss what makes it so affecting.
Repeated throughout the narration, "Rise, hold steady, fall," feels as if it's describing the cycle of any given life. It could be depressing, but in the hands of Fenstermaker, it's neither aloof nor cynical. Here I Breathe just seems sympathetic to how devastating the passing of time can feel.
The narration ends with the same phrase it began with, but instead of accompanying an image of youth, there's a photo of an older, unsimiling woman wearing red flannel. "I watched my hands grow old and wrinkled. She watched her hands turn raw and wrinkled," says Fenstermaker. "Rise, hold steady, fall."
SEE IT: Fading Landscapes: The Films of Linda Fenstermaker plays at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., nwfilm.org. 7 pm Wednesday, August 23. $9.