For nearly four decades Isla Roberts has lived in Mylor in the Adelaide Hills with Susan Phillips-Rees. Over a cup of tea in the couple’s kitchen, Isla recounts their meet-cute in song:
The initial encounter I had with Susan was when she was positioned by a gate.
Holding a bridle in her grasp / while a grin adorns her countenance,
In 1984, Phillips-Rees required assistance in transporting a horse. Roberts was known for her skills in handling animals and was quickly invited to the home that Phillips-Rees had purchased with her former husband. Although Roberts was married at the time, she ended up moving in within a year.
Roberts, who is now 87 years old, clarifies, “It’s simply a natural occurrence. You develop feelings for someone and decide to live together.”
The kitchen walls display glimpses of their unexpected intertwined histories. Among them are monochrome pictures of Roberts and her identical twin, Barbara, both on horseback and resembling each other. There is also a striking drawing of Phillips-Rees from the 1970s by a young Robert Hannaford, a reminder of a past life in the city.
Their relationship is clearly well-established, but if you try to define it or label Robert’s sexuality, she will not tolerate it.
“I identify as Isla Roberts,” she states at the beginning of Isla’s Way, a recently released documentary that documents a year in the lives of these women.
Marion Pilowsky, a first-time documentarian, starts with a dilemma. This dilemma may seem outdated in a time where many queer and marginalized individuals embrace labels as a way to find community and establish their identity. As Pilowsky attempts to explain the idea of “coming out” to a disinterested Roberts, their situation is reminiscent of past eras where vague terms like “friend” were used to hide various lifestyles and relationships.
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The documentary, which runs for 80 minutes and was directed by David Magarey Roberts, follows Roberts’ life as she cares for horses, goes about her daily activities, and shares moments of both joy and sadness.
When Roberts got married at a registry office, she was already two months pregnant. After the wedding, she and her late husband moved to a sheep station 600km north-west of Adelaide. There, she took care of the wells, raised four children, and lived with a man who became more and more unstable. The film-makers join her as she revisits the remains of their house, now destroyed by time and the elements. She expresses her distaste for the experience, saying, “It was terrible, I will never return.”
I gently inquire if the notion of cohabiting with a woman and having a similar type of relationship as Phillips-Rees was something that crossed her mind when she got married.
“Absolutely not,” she states matter-of-factly.
Originally residing in Sydney and building a successful career as a social worker, Phillips-Rees found herself faced with a difficult decision when her husband, who held a prestigious role as a creative director at a well-known global advertising firm, accepted a position in Melbourne. “It never crossed my mind to suggest that I stay in Sydney and continue my job while he relocated,” she reflects, acknowledging the societal norms of the time.
Kuala Lumpur, London, Somerset and Singapore would follow, where Phillips-Rees would have a range of experiences – “those Indian girls, you know, in Singapore,” she says – before the marriage collapsed. In the film, Phillips-Rees is frustrated by Roberts’ rejection of the “lesbian” label, which she feels negates their connection.
Roberts’ extraordinary life touches on timeless themes of aging, self-sufficiency, and liberty. The camera captures her unwavering determination to keep driving, despite objections from her grown children, a challenging discussion that many families can relate to.
However, Roberts’ situation differs in one crucial aspect: she is discussing her love for carriage driving, a hobby she developed as a child growing up in the countryside alongside her late friend Barbara, who passed away from cancer several years ago. The documentary follows Roberts’ journey to demonstrate her ability to physically handle the reins at her grandson’s wedding, which is a major focus of the film’s year-long storyline.
She declares confidently, “There is no task I cannot accomplish, as long as I have the desire to do so.”
During the interview, Roberts and Phillips-Rees mentioned that they had not yet watched the film. They planned to save it for the premiere at the Adelaide film festival and then release it in theaters. In the early stages of filming, Phillips-Rees expressed enthusiasm for the film’s concept as a way to combat the lack of representation of older women and lesbian grandmothers.
Currently, she is feeling a bit tired from the constant observation over the past year, and is mentally preparing herself for their relatives and community members to witness all of it on the large screen.
She laughs and exclaims, “I won’t be able to stroll down this cursed street!”
Roberts appears satisfied with not overcomplicating the film or her personal life, and continues to reject being labeled by her emotions and past events – both the struggles and the subtle moments of freedom.
She declines discussing herself, stating that she has had a pleasant life. She also boasts her ability to make people laugh, claiming she can do so for anyone.
Regarding their personal circumstances, there may be a few words that Roberts is content to use.
She says that living with Susan brings her great joy.