Exploring ‘SlingShot’ Effect on Global Water Crisis

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With his new documentary, SlingShot, director/producer Paul Lazarus hopes to help level the playing field for those who have long been denied access to clean, affordable water.

With a few notable exceptions, like the drought emergency in California, Americans tend to take easy, cheap and plentiful water for granted. But across the globe, especially in developing countries, 50 percent of all human illnesses are caused by water-borne pathogens.
With his new documentary, SlingShot, director/producer Paul Lazarus hopes to help level the playing field for those who have long been denied access to clean, affordable water.
SlingShot chronicles the life and innovations of Dean Kamen, who is perhaps best known for his creation of the Segway personal transportation device. But Kamen is doing much more than developing modes of vehicular conveyance.
The documentary follows Kamen’s attempts to create a water purification system to solve the world’s water crisis. Based on a prior invention of a portable insulin pump, Kamen created a vapor compression distiller — called SlingShot — that can transform any unclean water source into safe drinking water.
SlingShot, which won 11 awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, will premiere at the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, located in the city’s Loft District, on Aug. 2. The screenings will be held at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.
Lazarus opened the film with speculation from people about who is Dean Kamen.
“He’s dead, isn’t he?” one man asked. (Answer: No, he is still very much alive.)
“Is that the dude that rode a Segway off a cliff?” the other chuckled. (Answer: No, that was Jim Heselden, who purchased Segway from Kamen in 2009.)
So maybe he’s not the most well-known among a generation of pop culture consumption. But his accomplishments are more than noteworthy.
Lazarus said they have been filming Kamen since 2007. He initially thought Kamen was working just on this water project, but later discovered that was only one of the ideas on his drawing board.
Kamen is also known for engineering the all-terrain, stair-climbing electric wheelchair iBOT, as well as founding the robotics organization FIRST for young students. He has been working on solutions to the world’s water crisis for the last 15 years.
Kamen was also elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1997 for his development of biomedical devices and expanding engineering among high schoolers. In 2000, he received the National Medal of Technology for making advancements in medical care from President Bill Clinton, who raved about Kamen’s success in the film.
By 2005, Kamen was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his creation of the AutoSyringe. In 2006, the United Nations awarded him with the Global Humanitarian Action Award. And in 2007, he received the highest honor from the American Society of
Mechanical Engineers.
“Telling a story like this is way beyond anything I imagined — you learn more and more about the story as you go,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus has known Kamen for more than a decade, describing him as a “complicated genius.” Lazarus has never committed to a project this long, but he wanted to showcase how the ideas in Kamen’s head are transformed into reality-altering inventions.
“I really thought that this might be his biggest innovation and his most important work,” he said.
Initially, Lazarus said he was fairly naïve and knew very little about the issue of clean water security and accessibility.
He said he’s seen other films about the water crisis that leave the audience feeling like there is nothing they can do to help. But by making this film, Lazarus said, “you can’t help but be in Dean’s presence and end up wanting to do more for others.”
With nearly 3.5 million people worldwide dying each year from contaminated water, according to UN-Water, the United Nations agency that deals with freshwater issues, Lazarus said he hopes to open people’s eyes about the water crisis and other global issues, making them feel inspired and empowered.
“We basically realized that we were making a movie about solution and hope versus just a scary presentation of crisis,” he said.
While educating people about the crisis, Lazarus also wanted to share Kamen’s personal mantra throughout the movie. Lazarus said Kamen never gave up on anything — an invention, an idea or even when faced with anti-Semitism as a child.
Kamen said in the film that when he was about 8 or 9, he was riding around the neighborhood on a new bicycle when out of nowhere, another kid jumped out in front of him, pushed him off of it and told him “he didn’t want to see this Jew riding around the block.”
“I knew that if I didn’t ride around the block again, I would just feel like I had been defeated,” Kamen said. He told the bully, “I am quite sure you could easily beat me up. But I’m gonna get on my bicycle and I’m gonna ride around this block again. And if you stop me, you better be prepared to kill me.”
He never bothered Kamen again.
That persistence to never give up has fueled his career as well.
 “We wanted to show a guy who could not be stopped — against any forces,” he said. “It was clearly a moment that expresses this man’s inability to be stopped.”
Kamen is so committed to his work that he even decided to forgo starting a family of his own.
Kamen’s parents always wanted a grandchild from him, but he said by focusing on his inventions, he can impact many more people across the globe.
“Every decision you make is a set of compromises,” he said in the film. “The only thing we have a finite amount of is our time.”
The film can be lighthearted, teasing Kamen’s consistent head-to-toe jean apparel, but also uplifting, portraying the passion he has for inspiring young students to change the world.
Lazarus has worked on several other documentaries and TV shows during his 30-year career, including Friends, Pretty Little Liars and Everybody Loves Raymond.
Although difficult to compare the two genres, Lazarus said he admires the effect this documentary has on life, whereas an episode of Friends, he said, cannot bring safe water to people.
“The one thing I have learned,” he said, “is that it’s quite a difference to make something that can affect people’s lives.”
Contact: [email protected](215-832-0737).

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