Isla Roberts is what you would call “a character”. The octogenarian at the heart of the loving documentary Isla’s Way, is quick with a joke and a raucous laugh, but as the camera lingers and director Marion Pilowsky pushes, it becomes clearer why we are here. Pilowsky doesn’t just want to hear Isla recount her stories, she wants to get to know Isla herself and that is harder than it seems.
Everyone knows, it’s Isla’s way or the highway. Isla doesn’t identify as queer in any way. “I’m not a lezzo. I’m not a dyke. I’m Isla Roberts,” she says firmly, before gleefully pointing to Susan, her partner of 40 years, saying “But she is!” The film charts a year in Isla’s life as she fights to keep participating in horse carriage racing and attends her grandson’s wedding.
As Pilowsky probes Isla for memories, she hits rich seams highlighting how life has changed in the last 80 years. Susan refers to Isla’s previous married life as that of an “early settler frontier”, living in a stone farmhouse on an outback sheep station, where she raised four children. It helps to explain Isla’s no-nonsense attitude to life and lack of sentimentality. She’s lived hard and doesn’t see any value in dreaming life away.
Taking a gentle pace, we slowly discover Isla’s place in her local community. The founder of a pony club that helps disabled children, Isla is an avid lover of all things equestrian, and takes great joy in racing her carriage around in competitive sports. Something she will have to give up as her reflexes wane with age. As the film reaches its final moments, it becomes clear that its title has a double meaning, which makes for a strong conclusion.
Isla’s life is captured beautifully by director of photography David Magarey Roberts, one of her grandchildren, but the film can sometimes get lost in its own introspection. Long sequences of day-to-day life begin to drag out its 84-minute running time, but Isla’s Way hits a number of all too rarely discussed points. From the enduring love of queer elders, the down-to-earth history of Australia in the 20th century and representing the lives of older women in general, this makes for a rewarding and life-affirming watch.
By Chad Armstrong
Isla’s Way plays the 33rd Melbourne Queer Film Festival 2023 on Wednesday, November 15th, 2023 followed by Q&A with director Marion Pilowsky and producer Georgia Humphreys. MQFF33 runs November 9th-19th. For the full lineup and to purchase tickets head to mqff.com.au.