safe spaces, 90s spas and a whole lot of neon

In ‘Apollo Health Club, 1995’ James J Robinson and Rachael Morrow turn a fragile feminist dream into a voyeuristic nightmare.

by Wendy Syfret
23 May 2017, 1:50am

In the new short film Apollo Health Club, 1995 director James J Robinson presents a dreamy female focused world that begins to crumble when disturbed by men. Set in the most beautiful gym we've ever seen — it's heavy on outfit ideas — Apollo Health Club explores what happens when places we perceive as safe are pierced by the male gaze.

In the film, a stray camera serves as the device to bring the outside world in, and transforms a seeming utopia into something more sinister. Suddenly aware of the presence of a faceless voyeur the subjects must confront the reality that paradise isn't real, it can only exist as a construct, and we're always vulnerable.

We spoke to director James J Robinson and producer Rachael Morrow about bringing this cracked fantasy to life.

This began as a school project, but the product we see here is pretty reworked. Can you tell us about what it began as, and how it morphed into this film?
James: Apollo Health Club, 1995 was my graduate film for my university course. I always told myself that I wouldn't write and direct a film in my final year unless I actually felt inspired to make something, rather than just making one for the sake of assessment. For me, the idea with this film was to create something that immersed the audience into an atmosphere while simultaneously unpacking a number of subtextual themes. Being in a film school however, and especially as a scholarship student who had to make top marks, the film's sense of poetry and immersiveness was lost as teachers tried to morph it into something that followed rigidly logical plot development. Over the course of a semester, my idea for a short tonal poem became a full 12-minute thriller narrative. Some of the guidance from the teachers at my film school was certainly valid, but I was too easily convinced to cut out anything experimental or unique, which is a mistake I won't make again.

Rachel tell us a little about how you came to work on this project.
Rachael: Initially when James came to me with Apollo Health Club, 1995 it was rough, but he had a clear aesthetic vision. I was immediately drawn to it not purely as a visual piece, but the strength of its subtext; which gave me the passion necessary to produce a film like this for university. I envisioned a film with little narrative content - instead, one focused on its underlying semiotic framework, which deconstructs the invasiveness of the patriarchy. Throughout the year teacher's involvement distorted our original concept, morphing it into a generic genre piece rather than the atmospheric experiment we had wanted. I was content with the final piece we had submitted, but was disappointed it had surrendered to the wants of everyone else besides us. Finally, months after graduation we decided to revisit the film, having the confidence in ourselves to revert it back to its original form: a purely tonal piece that maximises the use of our eerie score by Maxwell Roberts and textured cinematography by Amy Dellar.

Why build this story around a health club?
Rachael: Apollo Health Club exists as a utopian world whereby people identifying as women of all colours, sizes, abilities, genders and ages can prevail in isolation from eyes that sexualise and control them (aka the male gaze).

By depicting Apollo as a safe space, through the carefully constructed camera angles and production design; it enabled us to then penetrate it, by manifesting the antagonist in the form of a hidden video camera. With this device the film's tonality transformed into one of anxiety and paranoia, throwing these characters back into the reality in which we live. This idea is explored right at the commencement of the film, which opens to the voice of an authoritative male, who is quickly silenced by a female character in order to make space for this utopia to unfold.

It's a really beautiful project, how did you go about creating this look?
James: My influence was always Yasujiro Ozu, my favourite director, purely because he's able to imply deeper meaning behind the most mundane actions. He'll spend a long time on a shot of a character looking at a vase or walking between rooms in a house, none of which progresses a plot, but invites the audience to read between the lines of every little action. I wanted to capture this sense of poetry in Apollo, not poetry as a form or structure, but poetry as a way of looking at the world. This was a central theme to my cinematographer Amy and I - everything had to pause and breathe - not rush into story.

We decided to shoot on Super 16mm film to give the film a texture; one of the major underlying themes of the film is the fragility of safe spaces - that regardless of where you are, oppressive power structures always have their influence. We played on this with cinematography and production design - our production designer Claire Melna constructs an idealised world where all colours are organised and everything is slightly too perfect - only to be undermined by grainy textured film and a non-widescreen 4x3 aspect ratio that makes the characters feel enclosed. As an aesthetic reference for production design, Todd Haynes' 1995 film Safe was our main inspiration.

Why set this in the 90s?
James: Our decision to set the film in the mid-90s enabled us to have a bit more fun with the production design, but it also most importantly was a key aspect in ensuring the subtext of the film made sense. The idea of our central character Maya finding a camera in this safe gym works on many levels - it represents the way patriarchy oppresses people identifying as women even in isolation, reflects me as the writer/director of the film observing the space through my male gaze, and makes active audiences question whether their role in watching the film is just as voyeuristic as the camera the film antagonises. For this polysemy to properly be realised, the film had to exist in a time before cameras were on phones and before the Internet normalised photographic exhibition. The presence of a camera in the health club had to have weight.

The film is pretty abstract, but what were the themes or questions that you set out to explore?
James: Laura Mulvey's Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema was an important thematic reference point when writing the film - exploring cinema as a form of voyeurism. Being a queer person of colour myself and Rachael being a woman of colour provided us with the motivation to write a film that deconstructed the roles oppression plays on screen. Being inclusive in our casting and crewing was not for the purpose of ticking boxes. We were one of only two films in our university course that had people of colour in speaking roles - I honestly wish I were exaggerating but diversity was never a talking point in classes.

Rachael: Continuing from what James said, in light of recent discussions of whitewashing in film and lack the of diversity (especially within the Australian film industry), we assumed our year level would be more in tune with these issues; however, due to the structuring of our course, such important discussion was never encouraged. I made it my mission as a woman of colour to ensure this diversity was reflected not merely in casting but crewing as well, where all felt safe to offer creative input. Apollo aimed to dissect these antiquated ways of thinking through its mere tone and imagery. This final cut of the film was our way of reclaiming our voices as POC creatives, without the influence of a dismissive institution.


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography James J Robinson

short film
james robinson
apollo health club
rachael morrow