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 first time I saw Susan / she was standing at a gate /
With a bridle in her hand / and a smile upon her face
It was 1984 and Phillips-Rees needed someone to move a horse. Roberts had a reputation for being good with animals and soon rocked up at the house Phillips-Rees had bought years earlier with her ex-husband. At the time Roberts was married herself, but within a year she had moved in.
“It’s just something that happens,” Roberts, now 87, explains. “You like somebody and move in together.”
The walls of their kitchen tell parts of their unlikely converging stories. There are black-and-white photographs of Roberts and her twin sister, Barbara, each on horseback and the spitting image of the other. Then a striking portrait of Phillips-Rees sketched in the 1970s by a young Robert Hannaford – a relic of a cosmopolitan former life.
Theirs is clearly a well lived-in relationship but try to put a label on it, or Roberts’s sexuality, and she won’t have a bar of it.
“I’m not a lesbian,” she says in the opening minutes of Isla’s Way, a new documentary that follows a year in the women’s lives. “I’m Isla Roberts!”
First-time documentarian Marion Pilowsky begins at this impasse – one that seems almost anachronistic in a time when such labels are often embraced as sources of community and identity for many queer and marginalised people. As Pilowsky tries in vain to explain the concept of “coming out” to an uninterested Roberts, their set-up seems, in contrast, a callback to earlier eras when coy euphemisms such as “friend” encompassed many unspoken ways of living and loving.
The 80-minute documentary, filmed by Roberts’ own David Magarey Roberts, allows her life story to slowly unfurl as she tends to horses, potters around, and shares a lot of laughter and occasionally some tears.
Roberts was two months pregnant when she married her late husband at a registry office, before moving out to a sheep station 600km north-west of Adelaide where she dug wells, raised four children and lived with an increasingly unstable man. The film-makers follow her to the ruins of that house laid waste by time and the elements (“It was awful, I’ll never go there again,” she says of the experience).
I ask, delicately, whether the idea of living with a woman and having the kind of relationship she enjoys with Phillips-Rees seemed like a possibility back when she married.
“No no no,” she says matter-of-factly.
Phillips-Rees was living in Sydney with a promising career as a social worker when her husband, then a creative director at a prominent international advertising agency, took a job in Melbourne. “It didn’t occur to me at all to say, ‘Well, if you go there, I’ll stay here and do this job.’ It was a sign of the times, really.”
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.
There are aspects of Roberts’ remarkable life that touch on universal questions of age, independence and freedom. The camera captures her determination to continue driving despite the protests of her adult children – a difficult conversation many families might recognise.
But in Roberts’ case there’s a key difference: she’s talking about carriage driving, a passion she picked up as a horse-loving country kid alongside Barbara, who died of cancer years ago. Roberts’ attempts to prove her fitness to literally take the reins at her grandson’s wedding forms a big part of the documentary’s year-long arc.
“There’s nothing I can’t do,” she says defiantly. “If I want to do it.”
At the time of this interview, Roberts and Phillips-Rees had yet to see the film, saving it for the premiere as part of the Adelaide film festival, before a theatrical release. Early in filming Phillips-Rees is seen embracing the idea as a “marvellous antidote to the invisibility of older women, grandmothers, including lesbian grandmothers”.
Today she’s a little weary from the year-long scrutiny, and is bracing herself for their families and neighbours seeing everything laid out on the big screen.
“I won’t be able to walk down the bloody street!” she says, laughing.
Roberts seems content not to overthink the film or her life, and still refuses to be defined by her feelings and experiences – the hardships and the quiet liberations.
“I don’t want to talk about myself,” she says. “I’ve had a good life. I can make you laugh, I can make anyone laugh.”
And as for their domestic situation, there are, perhaps, a few words Roberts is happy to use.
“I love living with Susan,” she says simply. “It’s just a joy – it’s a joy to live with Susan.”