“Amata was an alcohol-free community, but some years earlier its population of just under 400 people had been consuming 40,000 litres of soft drink annually.
The thing that I say in community meetings all the time is that, the reason we’re doing this is so that the young children now do not end up going down the same track of diabetes, kidney failure, dialysis machines and early death, which is the track that many, many people out here are on now,”
Mai Wiru, meaning good health, and managed by long-time community consultant John Tregenza.
Watch The Sugar Trip on Australian Story Monday 5 September at 8:00pm on ABC TV.
In the language of the Pitjantjatjara people of Central Australia, there is an expression — “Ngapartji Ngapartji”.
It means: “What are you going to give back in return for this favour?”
Melbourne filmmaker Damon Gameau was introduced to the concept a couple of years ago while making his now acclaimed documentary That Sugar Film, which raised awareness of the hazards of any diet containing too much sugar.
He wanted to include a segment about an innovative health program initiated by Indigenous communities in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands, where stores were stocking healthy foods and nutritionists were advising customers on the best food choices.
It was called Mai Wiru, meaning good health, and managed by long-time community consultant John Tregenza.
“He said he was making a film. I was fairly wary,” Mr Tregenza told Australian Story.
“I undertook to help Damon on the basis of Ngapartji Ngapartji … that if the film was a success he would set up a foundation to assist the people to understand the sugar message.”
At the time, the Mai Wiru project was starting to hit trouble. Government funding had been withdrawn and, while the stores were commercially viable, the community could no longer afford key elements of Mai Wiru, such as employing nutritionists.
Fast-forward 18 months and Gameau’s film had become a box office juggernaut — one of the highest-grossing Australian documentaries of all time.
True to his word, Gameau set about helping Mr Tregenza revitalise the health project.
He created the Mai Wiru Sugar Challenge Foundation and recently returned to the APY Lands with two nutritionists and an action plan, all paid for by funds generated by the new foundation.
Where it all began — meeting David Gulpilil
Gameau’s connection with Indigenous communities began nearly 15 years ago when he appeared in Rolf de Heer’s landmark film The Tracker, starring David Gulpilil.
Meeting Gulpilil was a life-changing experience according to Gameau.
“To go and spend time with him and live with his family and live off the land and hunt; I was only 23, it blew my mind. I felt the magic of that,” he said.
“But there was an element when I’d seen how much Coke people were consuming and that kind of really shocked me.”
Back then Gameau himself was no role model when it came to diet and health. He regularly ate junk food, smoked a packet of cigarettes a day and partied hard.
But in 2008, while working on the film Balibo in Timor-Leste, he met his future wife Zoe Tuckwell-Smith, who was a healthy eater.
“I knew as soon as I met her, I’m going to have to change some things in my life,” he told Australian Story.
“She’s the one, but I’ve got some work to do.”
He adopted a new diet, cutting out all processed foods and sugar. Within weeks he felt and looked healthier.
Turning his hand to directing, he won Tropfest in 2011 with an animated short film Animal Beatbox.
It gave him the impetus to look for a bigger directing project.
Sugar at that time was literally becoming “flavour of the month” in the media, so with his recent experience of improved health he embarked on an experiment using himself as a lab-rat and filmed what would become That Sugar Film.
Over 60 days, Gameau consumed 40 teaspoons of sugar a day — all hidden in processed, so-called healthy foods.
“By the end I’d developed pre-type two diabetes, I had heart disease, I had 11 centimetres of visceral fat. But the big one was, the non-alcoholic fatty liver disease was almost in a full-blown state,” he said.
Although Gameau had proved that a high sugar diet was dangerous, he wanted to examine the reverse effect in his documentary — showing a community that had removed sugar from their diet.
That was when he discovered the APY Lands’ Mai Wiru project, and visited the small town of Amata some 100 kilometres from Uluru.
Amata was an alcohol-free community, but some years earlier its population of just under 400 people had been consuming 40,000 litres of soft drink annually.
The community elders stepped in with Mai Wiru to address the problem.
Mai Wiru had prospered commercially but, by the time Gameau arrived, the government funding cuts meant the community could no longer afford a nutritionist.
High consumption of sugar was again taking its toll and the health focus of the project was waning.
Soon after That Sugar Film was released in March last year, Gameau successfully applied for it to be accepted into a new philanthropic funding initiative, Good Pitch, which had been adopted in Australia from the UK and US.
“It’s the first time it happened in Australia,” Gameau told Australian Story.
“They put you in a room with a lot of philanthropists, and people contribute to what is called an outreach campaign that really backed what we were doing.”
This support, including a financial start-up contribution of about $90,000 from philanthropists, and a percentage of the profits from his documentary, enabled Gameau to honour his promise to Mr Tregenza and the APY community by establishing the Mai Wiru Sugar Challenge Foundation.
Thumbs up for nutrition
Mr Tregenza chose the tiny town of Pipalyatjara for a pilot program.
Gameau and two nutritionists recently travelled to Pipalyatjara to work with the community in developing an education program on diet and sugar.
A screening of That Sugar Film at the local women’s centre set the scene.
This was followed by in-store demonstrations on how to read food labels to detect “hidden” sugar, and by the installation of “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down” signs on shelving to denote good and bad food options.
Cooking sessions using only healthy foods that could be sourced from the Mai Wiru store were also held for anybody who wanted to attend.
The meals were consumed with gusto.
“The thing that I say in community meetings all the time is that, the reason we’re doing this is so that the young children now do not end up going down the same track of diabetes, kidney failure, dialysis machines and early death, which is the track that many, many people out here are on now,” Mr Tregenza said.
With encouraging signs from the first stage of the pilot program, Mr Tregenza is now looking five to 10 years ahead.
Gameau and his team plan to return to Pipalyatjara before the end of the year to set up a healthy eating cafe — building infrastructure and assisting locally trained chefs to cook daily for the community.
Ngapartji Ngapartji. The favour is being repaid.
Watch The Sugar Trip on Australian Story tonight at 8:00pm on ABC TV.