And what if that movie was fun? What if it made you believe that one talented person with unquenchable passion, along with a group of similarly talented people inspired by that passion, could end up making a huge difference in the health of millions across the globe?
During Heartland Film Festival, which takes place October 16-25, you’ll have exactly that film-going opportunity. Paul Lazarus, the director/producer, will be at Heartland along with his film, SlingShot, which chronicles the quest of Dean Kamen to solve the world’s water problems with a machine the size of a soft-drink dispenser.
It starts out with a handclap, a greatly exaggerated death, a secret passage, and a walk-in closet full of denim shirts. All true facets of the dazzling personality belonging to this perhaps most prolific of our nation’s current great minds.
Lazarus has worked with Kamen for over twenty years on various film projects that document the inventor’s visions. The latest is a full-length profile that focuses one of Kamen’s dearest projects: an incredibly efficient water purifying machine, the SlingShot of the title, which Kamen hopes to put in every imaginable corner of the world and wipe out all water-borne illness.
For those who might be wondering if that’s a big deal: It would mean the end of nearly half of all human disease.
“This is possibly the biggest thing that Dean is ever going to tackle,” says Lazarus. He began working on the film eight years ago, in 2006. “When you know Dean Kamen, you never underestimate his ability to make something happen. So I thought, what if we could start shooting now, instead of at the end of the story, and see if we could dramatize what it’s like to be an idea inside of Dean’s head that becomes a reality?”
Kamen, the inventor of the Segway Personal Transporter, is also the inventor of the iBOT, the HomeChoice portable dialysis machine, and dozens of other life-changing inventions. He comes across in the film as a very cool guy—even though his closet full of denim shirts would seem to beg the contrary. He’s cool because he doesn’t care about being cool. He cares about solving problems.
Kamen, Lazarus says, is full of stories about how the problems he’s solved have come to his attention.
In one story, Kamen sees a man in a wheelchair unable to get up over a curb. “And Dean thinks, ‘We can put a person on the moon, but we can’t get a guy in a wheelchair up over a curb? This is absurd. I gotta fix that.’ And then he fixes it, and he makes an iBOT, and it’s self-balancing, and it goes right up over a curb.
“It’s all about a different approach to a problem.”
The extent of the water problem is vast. According to a 2014 World Health Organization fact sheet, 748 million people around the world rely on unimproved sources of water. Over one billion rely on contaminated drinking-water sources, resulting in more than 500,000 diarrheal deaths per year.
Kamen’s vapor-compressor distiller addresses this issue right at the point of use, without the need for source analysis or even chemicals or filters. Stick the input hose in any kind of water, with any kind of problem imaginable and out comes pure, distilled water. The source water can be anything—seawater, poisoned well water, river sludge, even “a fifty gallon drum of urine,” which is the scenario Stephen Colbert suggested when Kamen appeared on his show in 2008.
In the meantime, the machine has been tested, retested, and perfected. In early tests, Kamen and his team discovered another wrinkle: users were delighted by access to the clean water but were later transferring it to unclean vessels or putting their hands in it before drinking. Kamen realized inventing the machine was only part of the problem. He would also have to distribute it and teach people how to use it.
He went to nonprofit aid groups—the U.N. included—hoping for help with distribution, but those organizations just didn’t have the infrastructure. To accomplish what he was hoping for, the machine would have to be delivered to nearly every country, to very remote areas, over sometimes very challenging terrain. Kamen, who is no stranger to epiphanies, had yet another one.
Here’s a hint. It involves what Kamen calls “the most humongous global logistics organization ever built by man,” as well as a product that’s likely just a two-minute Segway ride away from you, right this very moment. That is, if you don’t already have one in your refrigerator.
But would Kamen’s idea for distribution work out as well as his machine? There was no way to know except to try.
A key scene in the film shows Ghanaian schoolchildren in yellow outfits being the first in their village to turn on the taps. On their faces are expressions of undeniable delight. It’s life changing, and not just in terms of disease prevention. Those who previously spent four hours a day looking for water may now be able to focus on other things—such as going to school.
Education is another big passion of Kamen’s. He created the FIRST program (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) and the FIRST Robotics Competition to get kids as excited about science as they currently are about sports.
FIRST, says Lazarus, “is not sitting around complaining about the problem. They’re solving it.” The sentiment is more than a bit Kamenesque, as is Lazarus’s view of his role in the problem-solving process.
Lazarus describes walking out of a screening of another recent documentary, “a big scary movie about water. Who do you know,” Lazarus asks, “that you’ve ever terrified into action?”
His film takes the opposite approach. “I’m going to give them so much tangible hope to hold onto that they’ll want to take action.”
Delighting every bit as much as it inspires, Lazarus’s film, like Kamen’s life-changing inventions, transforms the world in a way that feels effortless.
It feels like turning on a tap, and having that good, healthy water pour out of it.
SlingShot will have four showings at Heartland Film Festival this October. Director Paul Lazarus will appear at showings on Oct. 22nd and 23rd. Times and locations can be found at Heartlandfilm.org.
FIRST photo by John F. Williams for the U.S. Navy (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUS_Navy_100305-N-7676W-182_Cmdr._Jim_Grove%2C_from_the_Office_of_Naval_Research_Navy_Reserve_Program_38%2C_left%2C_helps_tudents_from_McKinley_Technology_High_School_make_adjustments_to_their_robot.jpg) via Wikimedia Commons.