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The Independent Critic

 An Interview With "Slingshot" Director Paul Lazarus 
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As I sat down with Paul Lazarus, co-producer and director of "SlingShot," it briefly occurred to me that I might be in over my head. "SlingShot" is a smart documentary about one of the world's smartest men, an eccentric genius and inventor named Dean Kamen. Perhaps best known for inventing the Segway Human Transporter, Kamen may very well be the best kind of genius - a man who is genuinely invested in making the world a better and safer place for every human being. There are people who talk about making a difference in the world. Kamen lives it. In addition to the Segway Human Transporter, Kamen has engineered an electric wheelchair that can climb stairs called the "Ibot,", reworked the heart stent, reconceived kidney dialysis, built portable insulin pumps, founded FIRST Robotics to inspire young students, and much more.

I suppose I should step back for just a moment. "SlingShot" isn't so much about Dean Kamen as it is about Kamen's 15-year quest to solve the world's water crisis, a crisis that is at the root of half of all human illness.

Let that sink in for a minute. 

While Kamen may very well be best known for the Segway, it is Kamen's invention that he calls the SlingShot that may truly change the world and improve the lives of millions. The SlingShot is an energy efficient machine that turns any unfit water into pure and safe water. "SlingShot" traces the story of Kamen's water purification machine from its earliest stages of development through recent trials in five schools in Ghana and beyond. Proven to work, Kamen's SlingShot could very well be a tiny piece of technology that helps the undeveloped countries of the world slay one of their biggest Goliaths - bad water.

For his part, filmmaker Paul Lazarus has spent a substantial part of the last seven years working to bring this story to the audience that it deserves. By telling Kamen's inspiring story, Lazarus is helping to provide a solution to what has been one of Kamen's biggest challenges - creating a worldwide awareness of the SlingShot. During his film's appearance at Indy's Heartland Film Festival, Lazarus sat down with The Independent Critic to talk about "SlingShot" and his own personal mission to help spread the word about Kamen and his invention that could very well obliterate half of human illness on the planet. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Let's start with the basics. Obviously, we're talking about Slingshot. Tell me about Slingshot, I've seen the film, but how would you describe Slingshot for my readers?

PAUL LAZARUS

It's a documentary, a film that I've been working on for almost eight years, that focuses on the inventor Dean Kamen who is probably best known for the Segway, the two-wheeled scooter device, but who has done way more than that. He's invented a box that can take any form of contaminated water and turn it into clean, safe water. It's an amazing compression distillation process and probably the most profound thing is how little energy it needs. For over 15 years, he's been trying to address the world's safe water problem. Using this technology, he feels that he's found a solution to the problem impacting impoverished villages all over the world that don't have access to clean water. Given that dirty water is accountable for pretty much 50% of the world's health issues, it's a phenomenal effort and a phenomenal device. I'm doing my little part to get the word out about it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think you're probably right that he is publicly most known for having invented the Segway. Do you think that's a little sad? I mean, here's someone who has spent his entire life trying to improve the lives of others and successfully doing so, but he's primarily known as the inventor of a two-wheeled scooter? I can recall when the Segway was first announced that I saw a publication, and I can't remember which one, call it the greatest invention of the last century. It just seems weird to me, I guess. When I think of the Segway and I think of the SlingShot, there's no question which one should be remembered.

PAUL LAZARUS

If you ever ride one, or anyone who has ridden one, it's a phenomenal technology. It didn't do for the world what he wanted it to do. It's very arguable whether he's ahead of the curve or behind. We may someday wake up and find that cities can't function on cars. We're already almost past the point where the situation is surmountable. We may all be clamoring for a device that works on a less than five mile trajectory that isn't a car. A lot of times, technologies get trashed for the wrong reasons. With the Segway, not that it's the second coming, but the idea of substituting a different form of transportation - the bicycle is a good example of that. The bicycle doesn't work in all applications either. I don't know if you've traveled in New York or L.A., but it's becoming impossible to get around in 2014. In 2030, I can't even imagine the motion of a car in New York City. It won't happen. There has to be something else. Who's to say who has the last laugh?

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think that points to another fact. There are some people who look at an invention like the Segway and they think "novelty." It's not a novelty. It's forward thinking. In many ways, it's completely in line with the way Dean Kamen has lived his life in that it's an invention that was ultimately designed to improve quality of life.

PAUL LAZARUS

I think so. I've ridden one so I have the advantage of understanding the technology viscerally. I think a lot of people who criticize the Segway have never been on one. Once you're on one and you experience this magic carpet ride and this phenomenal self-balancing technology, you can't quite dismiss it like some people have. It doesn't matter. As we were saying, this is a man with 440 patents in his name. He's tackled kidney dialysis. He's improved heart stents. He's built wheelchairs that travel up stairs. He's built prosthetic arms. Now, he's invented a machine that can turn dirty water into safe, pure water. I believe that it's potentially the most important thing he's ever done.

Section title here
Paul Lazarus, Producer/Director of "SlingShot"

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

You said that you've been working on this film for eight years?

PAUL LAZARUS

Yeah, not steadily for eight years. 2006 is when I first had the idea. It's a long time.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Wow. Why make that kind of a commitment to it?

PAUL LAZARUS

Well, I've done a lot of storytelling in my life. I was a theater director and I had a very satisfactory and satisfying career in the theater. I've done 20 years of primetime television. I have access to this genius and I've made a lot of short films with him. When he told me that he was working on water, I thought this could be the most important thing he ever tackles. I have the ability to turn a camera on it and tell the story of what it means to go from an idea to reality. With something as important as clean water, I thought "I should do this." It became a kind of a mission. I had no idea it was going to be this challenging. I had no idea it was going to take this long. I probably would have never done it.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Why has it taken so long?

PAUL LAZARUS

It's a very, very complex story to tell. There was really a four-year period where the story was languishing. In 2011, the story took a radically big turn when Coca-Cola entered the story. Up to that point, from 2007 - 2011, it was really Dean working on this device and I was not filming very much. I was not very active. I was looking for funding and for ways to make the film. It wasn't an everyday affair for the first four years. It was self-funded and there was work done. Starting in 2011, it became everyday.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

Can you talk about that moment when Coca-Cola got involved? I'll admit that when I saw that there was part of me that was a bit surprised. You have this stereotype "the evil empire." I've seen them on worst corporation lists. Corporate Accountability International has documented that they hinder clean water access abroad, but then this comes along and it flies completely in the face of that broad stereotype.

PAUL LAZARUS

I don't think it's my job to talk about Coca-Cola and childhood obesity, high-fructose corn syrup, and diabetes. Those are issues that are very important. They are issues that are paramount to any discussion of Coca-Cola. They're not what this movie is about. This movie is about water. In terms of water, Coke has had its troubles in the past, and major ones, which the movie details. What they've chosen to do in recent years is - A) make movement to making amends for some of the things they've done, and B) make movement toward a very positive corporate action which is to help this inventor get this box out into the world. Whatever the motivation is, if the motivation is good PR, I'm happy about it. If their mission is to get the Nobel Peace Prize, I'm happy about it. Whatever the motivation is, I don't think it's terribly important that we understand the motivation as much as we understand the action. I'm not going to fall into the cliche' of trashing somebody who's doing good. I have a problem with the knee-jerk reaction that all corporate energy is negative and all for profit motivation is negative. Hopefully, documentaries are truth-telling and not mired in cliche'. If the facts present themselves as Coca-Cola is doing a good thing then I'm going to support Coca-Cola. I have a lot of problem with this attitude that's not based on fact. If you throw a fact at me and it's real I'll listen. If you come at me with an attitude that's based on pre-conceived notions about the way corporations work, the way profit works, or the way greed works then I'm not going to listen. You need to be brave enough to support good work wherever it happens.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

So, Coca-Cola got involved in and supportive in 2011. Where is the project at this point?

PAUL LAZARUS

The things that are worth noting are that Dean was struggling to get this box out in the world. By the way, the good empires - The UN, the NGO's, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, all the places that should have embraced the technology didn't. There were trials done in Ghana which are detailed in the movie where five machines were set up in five rural, very remote schools that did have access to electricity but not to running water. I watched children who'd never seen running water in their lives get clean running water. It was a very moving experience. Subsequent to the positive results in Ghana, which were deemed a success by almost everyone, Coca-Cola moved forward and started trials on three separate continents - in South Africa, Paraguay, and Mexico which is just rolling out now. Dean is a remarkable technologist, he's tireless, and the machine, which is seen in the movie as an Alpha, has already gotten to Beta. The next generation of the machine has already been accomplished and it's being produced and they're investigating how to mass produce it. The cost is going down. What I know is that Muhtar Kent, the CEO of Coca-Cola, was on the stage of the Clinton Global Initiative in 2013 and announced to the world that he was forming partnerships to get 500 million liters of clean waters out where it is needed by the end of 2015. We are one year plus a couple of months away from that goal. I have no reason to believe they don't mean that. I would like the movie to get out as soon as possible to help ensure that goal is maintained. 

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

How long has the movie been out? Up to this point, you've been on the festival circuit?

PAUL LAZARUS

It's only been out in the festival circuit. It premiered in March at Cinequest. So, it has been seven months.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

What has the reception been so far?

PAUL LAZARUS

It's been phenomenal. I guess everything that I spent all this time for has been realized in the sense that the audience response is one of inspiration, one of hope, one of increased awareness, and one of action. Those are goals for any documentary filmmaker. What is particularly gratifying is when it's about the world's water crisis, which is about as serious and as daunting as you can possibly imagine. I've walked out from many other documentaries about the world's water crisis feeling numb, depressed, uninspired, and hopeless, and the fact that we've somehow made a movie that's about the same problems but leaves people wanting to get involved is very exciting. The response has been tangible in that the film to this point has won something along the lines of twelve separate awards. I've been recognized for my work in surprising ways. In the case of Florida, we won both the audience favorite and the jury award which hadn't happened in eighteen years. It's a very gratifying experience to play the film in front of audiences. It's very uplifting for me. It makes the seven plus years almost feel worth it! No, absolutely feel worth it! I think the single biggest deal for me is how many parents have come up to me after a screening and told me that they want their child to see the movie. More than anything, they want their child to experience the hope and the positive attitude toward science and technology that I believe the movie offers. I've come to realize the movie isn't really about him or the SlingShot. I'm very conscious that people are depressed by the state of things. It's like "How are we going to fix all this?" I think the movie offers the hope that man is smart enough that with enough resources and outreach capabilities can possibly through science and technology fix our problem. That's a big deal. Somehow, I think we've gotten everybody around the campfire and told that story not in a stupid or insipid way but in a way that's actually smart enough that people walk out of the theater believing that there's a shot. It's going to require a lot of work. It's going to require a lot of commitment. It's going to require money, talent, vision, and everything but can happen. The idea that something positive can happen is a very meaningful thing in this world. Mostly, we think it can't.

THE INDEPENDENT CRITIC

I think that says a lot about you as a filmmaker. You captured that on film and I would agree with your observations because, yes, a lot of documentaries tend to get mired in the muck of their issues rather than leaving the viewer with that sense of inspiration, awareness of hope. I was talking to one of the folks from the Heartland Film Festival, and we were talking about the fact that this film inspires and leaves you feeling hopeful. You made a smart film, yet you also made an accessible film.

PAUL LAZARUS

I think it has something to do with focusing on a potential solution. This is one solution. There are other solutions. We need them all. I wanted to make a movie that a solution was possible. You can't make a case for solving something without showing something that works and why it's not stupid. Somebody asked me "How do you deal with drought?" I said "Well, that's a different movie." This machine is not about drought. That's a different problem. I live in California. I have signs all over my highways saying "Serious Drought. Save Water." That's not what this machine is about, but maybe there's a way to solve that. This is a solution for villages all around the world that don't have the ability to clean their water supply. They have to go searching, and they're mostly women, for four hours a day to bring back crap, as Dean says, it's water that we wouldn't give to our dogs. That's not a good situation. I really do believe that the world's going to shrink and we'd better start helping each other. If we don't, what's the alternative?

 BASIC WATER FACTS 
  • There are 345 million people without water access in Africa
  • 3.4 million people die each year from a water related disease
  • 780 million people lack access to clean water
  • Lack of access to clean water and sanitation kills children at a rate equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing every four hours.
  • An American taking a five-minute shower uses more water than the average person in a developing country slum uses for an entire day.
  • More people have a mobile phone than have a toilet

Source: Water.org

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