It’s 1977 and renowned eye doctor Professor Fred Hollows smokes a pipe as he drives a khaki four-wheel drive through outback Australia. The scene gives way to Hollows, sporting a mean set of side-burns, telling a nation things it prefers not to hear.
“The hard facts are in an affluent country like this there are incredible pockets of poverty and disease, including eye disease, as anybody who looks even superficially at the Aboriginal scene will see,” he says.
The documentary was called They Used to Call It Sandy Blight and it was made by an independent film crew that travelled with Hollows’ groundbreaking National Trachoma and Eye Health Program team through remote Australia.
It first went to air on the ABC in 1978, despite reported attempts by Australian health authorities to censor it. And it’s fair to say the film, which drew attention to Indigenous health problems, third-world living conditions and in particular high rates of blindness, caused nothing less than an uproar.
But 38 years after its controversial debut on the ABC and in the 40th anniversary year of the NTEHP, the reels and footage have found a home at the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which is also making the film available to the world on YouTube.
Professor Hollows’ widow, Gabi, told NIT in the late 70’s many people had found the documentary confronting.
“It was a little bit harsh at the time for some people to hear what was going on in Indigenous communities,” she says. “A lot of people were saying ‘You can’t talk about that’ and tried to censor it.
“Fred actually had quite an outspoken way of speaking and the film I think was quite confronting to some people to see.
“When we had our event at the National Museum it was quite a prompt to remind people that some things have changed for the better. We now have over 200 Indigenous doctors and lots of medical services. All the things the way Fred was wanting to have them, but still, in your face, you’ve still got some very challenging conditions in some of the communities today.”
Professor Hollows, who died in 1993, was set on his path of restoring sight to outback Australia in the late 60s when he was asked to see two senior men from Daguragu (Wattie Creek) in the Northern Territory.
The men had eye problems Professor Hollows had never seen before. Doctors at the time had thought the problems were only found in Africa.
But it was the tip of the iceberg and Hollows was shocked by the high prevalence of blinding trachoma — a bacterial eye infection — in men, women and children, as well as the lack of basic health care.
In 1976 he launched the three-year NTEHP with the aim of eliminating trachoma and other eye conditions in rural and remote communities and, for the first time, record the status of eye health in rural Australia.
In one sobering statistic in They Used to Call it Sandy Blight, the commentator reveals that in one central Australian community at the time, a quarter of its people over 60 were blind.
Mrs Hollows, an orthoptist, was a member of the NTEHP team. She says apart from the health issues, the team also faced other challenged.
“In those days there were so many people who hadn’t identified as Aboriginal people or coming from Aboriginal descent,” she says.
“For every patient that came through the door we had to identify who they were and where they were from, but so many people just hung their heads and had no idea because they were from the Stolen Generation and they weren’t in their own communities and they were taken away from their families for such a long time.
“It was very very confronting. At one time they said there was no Stolen Generation. There was (former Aboriginal Affairs Minister) John Herron and John Howard denying we had a Stolen Generation of Indigenous people.
“Well, that was the biggest lie that ever was because all over this country, and still today, there are people who still don’t identify and have no knowledge of who their families were.”
Today, the Fred Hollows Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation set up by the Hollows in 1992, works in more than 25 countries to eliminate avoidable blindness and has restored sight to more than two million people.
Working with Indigenous communities in Australia remains central to what the Foundation does.
Mrs Hollows says in the Foundation’s Indigenous program last year, 15,000 people in remote areas were screened and 1,799 operations and treatments were performed — 782 cataract surgeries and 816 related to diabetes.
More than 2,500 people were treated with antibiotics for trachoma. About 3,700 pairs of glasses were prescribed. Nearly 270 community health workers were trained and more than 3,500 school children were screened.
“In Australia I think we still have very very shocking conditions in some communities,” she says. “There have been amazing, good stories. But it’s hard and you have to chip away at it all the time.
“You can’t rest on your laurels and say ‘okay we’ve done that’ because by the time you come back it’s another generation that’s got to be looked at.”