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An Inventor’s Thirst for a Better World

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David dropped Goliath with a slingshot, so fittingly SlingShot is the namesake for an invention that's supposed to slay a giant global problem: water-borne pathogens that cause an estimated half of all human illness worldwide.

Segway inventor Dean Kamen, a denim-clad visionary with 440 patents to his name and who commutes to work in a helicopter, nicknamed his SlingShot technology after the Biblical tale because he hopes the small machine can defeat preventable disease in the remotest villages around the world by turning even the foulest sewer water into clean potable H20. World-changing technology doesn't get developed overnight, and in this case a documentary filmmaker has been capturing the entire process of making an idea into reality on film.

In this still from SlingShot boys drink from Kamen's invention which aims to fight  disease in the developing world with clean water. - COURTESY OF WHITE DWARF PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy of White Dwarf Productions
  • In this still from SlingShot boys drink from Kamen's invention which aims to fight disease in the developing world with clean water.

For the past eight years, Ivy League-educated director Paul Lazarus, whose lengthy directing credits list includes episodes of Psych, Ugly Betty, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends, Melrose Place, Mad About You, Beverly Hills 90210, and Pretty Little Liars, has worked on the film SlingShot. It documents Kamen's creation of a vapor compression distiller that can turn sludge rivers or other polluted water sources into pure water that's safe to drink.

Stephen Colbert said the device, which requires less energy than a hairdryer to start, could turn "a 50-gallon tank of urine" into clean drinking water. And, no joke, it could.

"I wanted to capture this huge complex idea in his head and show what it means in reality," Lazarus says. "This is an amazing, inspiring man, and I wanted to capture his process and personality."

He made a 93-minute feature documentary, because he wanted to help make the SlingShot technology more widespread, inspire more children to become interested in science and raise awareness about water conservation. SlingShot is showing at the Heartland Film Festival, and Lazarus will be in town for Q-and-A sessions after it screens at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday at AMC Castleton Square 11 and at 6:15 p.m. Thursday at AMC Traders Point Theater 10. If you can't make it on a weeknight, you can still see the movie. A final showing is scheduled for at 3 p.m. Saturday at Traders Point Theater 9 when Lazarus will have moved onto his next destination as he travels cross-country to promote his work.

Paul Lazarus has shot several films with Kamen, though his primary work as a director has been in television production. - COURTESY OF WHITE DWARF PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy of White Dwarf Productions
  • Paul Lazarus has shot several films with Kamen, though his primary work as a director has been in television production.

Though his background is mainly in television, Lazarus has been shooting short films for Kamen for years, including on his FIRST Robotics Competition for high school students.

"I first met him in the early 1980s," he says. "My first impression was 'who is this?' He seems really passionate, and I'd like to know more about him."

In 2006, he learned of Kamen's idea to solve the world's water crisis through possibly his biggest invention yet, one that could improve the health of billions of people around the globe. The idea was to superheat water into vapor in a box so that impurities fall out, and then to cool the resulting 'clouds' into pure injectable-grade water that's higher quality than anything coming out of a tap and that does not require any chemical additives or filters. The inventor agreed to Lazarus's pitch to film the process of refining his idea into a workable technology that could cost-effectively purify water across the globe.

Film crews followed Kamen from the earliest development of the machine, across three continents, and onto recent tests of prototypes in rural Ghana, as he works to plant the machines in villages around the world.

"It's a movie about hope, the idea that a human being can actually use science and technology to solve our problems," Lazarus says.

His goal was to inspire but also to make people more aware of the scope of the problem, how 50 percent of the world's illness is caused by unsafe drinking water due to a lack of sanitation. In developed countries, people generally treat water as though it's an endless resource, but the recent algae-related water emergency in Toledo shows how unstable it can really be, Lazarus points out.

Dean Kamen and Paul Lazarus examine one of the SlingShot machines. - COURTESY OF WHITE DWARF PRODUCTIONS
  • Courtesy of White Dwarf Productions
  • Dean Kamen and Paul Lazarus examine one of the SlingShot machines.

He hopes moviegoers in Indianapolis and other cities on the festival circuit, where SlingShot already has picked up a number of awards, will walk out of the theater motivated to change the world.

"This is a disruptive, unique movie that's been described as a change agent," Lazarus says. "Hopefully, it affects attitudes in society where water is taken for granted, as though it will be available for us at any moment. There's a moment in the movie where it shows a golf course being watered after the audience has seen kids without potable water in Ghana. Should potable water be used to serve the needs of a golf course when people are dying?"

His hope is that newly inspired moviegoers will make small changes in their own lives, such as turning the tap off while they brush their teeth.

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