HBO documentary puts spotlight on Seva, a Berkeley nonprofit that restores sight to the blind

Manisara with the granddaughter she has never seen. Photo: HBO Films
Manisara with the granddaughter she had never seen in the new documentary Open Your Eyes. Photo: HBO Films

At a time when so much of the world’s news seems so dark, HBO is airing a documentary featuring a Berkeley nonprofit that is literally bringing more light into the world. Open Your Eyes focuses on the work of the Seva Foundation, which helps restore sight to blind and visually-impaired people by helping fund cataract surgeries, glasses, medicine and professional training in clinics around the world. The 25-minute documentary is being aired this month as part of HBO’s summer documentary series, and is also available on HBO Go.

“In the early days our tagline was ‘compassion in action,” said Seva Executive Director Jack Blanks. “Our current tagline is ‘a solution in sight’.”

The roots of the organization go back to the ideals of the 1960s, and its original co-founders include icons such as Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy and Dr. Larry Brilliant, who was part of the World Health Organization’s team working to eradicate smallpox. Steve Jobs, who studied for a time at the same India-based ashram as Brilliant, served on the advisory board for a few months just before Apple took off, and gave Seva its very first grant. Many Berkeleyans may be familiar with Seva through the groups’ benefit concerts featuring musicians such as the Grateful Dead, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt.

The documentary subtitled “A Journey from Darkness to Sight,” doesn’t focus on Seva or its colorful Berkeley roots. Instead, it focuses on the equally compelling story of two Nepali grandparents who have been blinded by cataracts and regain their sight after a surgery funded by Seva. It was filmed by the Portland-based Irene Taylor Brodsky, who had a long-time interest in both Nepal and Seva. She asked to accompany some Seva outreach workers on their rounds doing eyesight screenings in remote mountainous area, and the story we see unfolded during that three-day journey.


We meet the main character of the film, Manisara, as she sits cross-legged outside her house and asks her young granddaughter, “Is your nose like mine?” She adds that she used to know the faces of her children but has never seen the faces of her grandchildren. After the Seva worker checks her eyesight and that of her husband, he explains that if the couple will come with him to an eye clinic in the city, they can get free cataract surgery and come back in two days with their sight restored.

“My knees hurt, everything hurts,” Manisara says, her weathered face full of pain. She wants to know if there will be a lot of walking involved. She and her husband waver at first, weighing the physical costs of a rugged trek up and down the mountain paths. But, finally, a smile breaks over her face. “You know what would make me truly happy?” she says. “I must tell you. I will be happy to see the world again.”

Manisara being led down the mountain to get surgery that will allow her to see for the first time in 15 years. PHoto: HBO Films
Manisara being led down the mountain to get surgery that will allow her to see for the first time in 15 years. Photo: HBO Films

With their minds made up, the couple packs and begins the arduous trip down the mountain for cataract surgery. They are carried and led down the treacherous paths by their son, a nephew, and the Seva workers. In the U.S. such surgery costs thousands of dollars, but in Nepal Seva is able to provide it for about $50, working with local clinics and physicians. The intra-ocular lens itself, which used to cost $500, now costs only $2, thanks to innovations spearheaded by Seva over the years.

“Something that causes 15 years of blindness can be changed in 6-7 minutes,” said Aaron Simon, Seva’s communications director. He adds that the physicians Seva works with, given two tables and two teams of techs, can perform about 45 surgeries per day.

“We try to make these clinics self-sufficient, so they can survive without us,” said Simon. Whenever possible, patients are asked to pay for their surgeries. The price they pay is a little more than the actual cost of the surgery, which helps fund surgeries for those who can’t afford to pay. Free cataract surgeries are offered only one day a month at the Nepal clinic.


Seva helps fund the surgeon’s training; training of the techs involved; purchase and repair of equipment; and other costs. Seva also pays for the outreach mobile teams who canvass the villages, test the eyesight of children and adults, and help connect villagers with needed services.

Seva started its work in Nepal and India, and now works in 20 countries, as well as with Native Americans living in New Mexico. “We provide help to one million people a year, including 100,000 sight-saving surgeries,” Blanks said. “The other 900,000 people receive eye glasses; medicated eye drops to save sight; and treatment of eye injuries.” Seva works with 100 local partners around the world, mostly hospitals or clinics.

Manisara at the Seva eye clinic in Nepal. Photo: HBO Films
Manisara at the Seva eye clinic in Nepal. Photo: HBO Films

The documentary shows the cataract surgery being performed at the Nepali clinic, and the palpable anxiety that grips the 55 blind and nearly-blind patients as they await their surgery in an unfamiliar setting. “Where is my husband? Where is my son? Where is my stick?” Manisara asks plaintively as she is led into surgery. “I am your son now, Mother,” the health worker tells her as she climbs onto a bed to await her turn.

The eye must be kept covered overnight, but the next morning the eyepatches are removed from all the clinic’s patients in rapid succession. “Open your eyes,” Manisara is told. She blinks her eyes in the sudden sunlight, and then her worried face breaks into a huge smile. “My sight has come back,” she says. “Hari Om! Oh my god!”

Her husband, meanwhile, is intently studying his hands, hands that he has not been able to see in over 10 years. “I have the hands of a dead man!” he says. “Those are a soft man’s hands,” jokes his wife.


And then everyone leaves the clinic for the long journey home. “I feel like a new person,” Manisara says, as she walks barefoot and unassisted on the rocky and very steep path home. “What is that out there? Are those mountains?” When she gets closer to home, she tries to identify which village house belongs to which neighbor. It has been such a long time since she could actually see her village that she gets some of the details wrong. And then she actually sees the face of her young granddaughter for the very fist time. “So thats what you look like,” she says happily.

Since Manisara was blind in both eyes she needed two cataract surgeries, and because she was so pleased with the first one, her family decided to pay for the second surgery, paying it forward. “They probably sold one of their animals to pay for it,” Simon explains.

Seva has a budget of about $6.5 to $8 million per year, and about half of that money comes from individuals and small family foundations. Much of the support comes from Berkeley and the Bay Area, although Blanks didn’t know exactly how much of their support is local.

The organization encourages HBO subscribers to host viewing parties of Open Your Eyes using HBO Go. Those who want to support the organization can make a contribution through the group’s website at www.seva. org. Seva is located at 1786 Fifth Street, and encourages Berkeleyans to stop by the office for more information or to inquire about volunteering.

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