An Inventor’s Unconventional Life
Documentary Film Traces the Single-Minded Habits of Dean Kamen
The documentary movie "SlingShot" profiles Dean Kamen and the water purification device he invented. The film is showing at Dartmouth College on Friday, August 8, 2014, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)
In a still from the documentary movie "SlingShot," girls gather water at the River Densu. The film is showing at Dartmouth College on Friday, August 8, 2014, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)
Filmmaker Paul Lazarus, left, speaks with inventor Dean Kamen during the filming of the documentary "SlingShot." The movie is showing at Dartmouth College on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)
Inventor Dean Kamen builds a clock in a publicity still from the documentary movie "SlingShot." The film is showing at Dartmouth College on Friday, August 8, 2014, at 7 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)
Near the beginning of Paul Lazarus’s feature-length documentary Sling Sh ot , about the inventor Dean Kamen and his quest to bring clean water to parts of the developing world, Kamen invites Lazarus and his film crew into his spacious, immaculate New Hampshire house.
Kamen tells Lazarus that when he was a boy, he always dreamed of keeping a helicopter at his house. It’s a kind of James Bond fantasy that, to most people, would remain just that. But presto! Kamen presses a button, a wall opens up, and there, indeed, is a gleaming helicopter, which he uses to make the commute to his office in downtown Manchester, and for short hops to the innumerable meetings he attends. Then there’s his private plane, which he pilots to meetings across the country.
“He goes to meetings in Ohio the way you and I go across the street,” Lazarus , a Dartmouth College graduate, said in a phone interview last week from Vermont, where he was vacationing with his family.
SlingShot screens tonight at 7 in the Loew Auditorium in the Black Family Visual Arts Center at Dartmouth. Lazarus will be there to introduce the film and participate in a post-film discussion.
Kamen has spent his life coming up with ideas for how to make life better for people — better dialysis machines, better wheelchairs, better heart stents. He’s probably best known for inventing the Segway, a motorized scooter that he hoped would reduce our reliance on cars for transportation. Although it generated enormous press, the Segway didn’t quite take off the way Kamen anticipated it would.
What becomes clear as the 93-minute film progresses is how little Kamen cares about doing things the conventional way
He’s a confirmed bachelor with no interest in marriage or children. His walk-in closet would be the envy of any movie star, but for the clothing in it: scores of identical jeans and denim shirts lined up neatly on hangers. Because he doesn’t want to waste any time fussing over his clothes he wears every single day a standard outfit of blue jeans and denim shirt that wouldn’t look out of place on Th e Brady Bunch . He brags, Lazarus said, about never having shopped in a grocery store in his life.
“Dean is completely unapologetic about every aspect of his life. When you know him even slightly and know what he gets done in a day. ...When you start to contextualize his life that way, the things that seem eccentric seem less so to me,” Lazarus said.
“For him it is just his way of absolutely exploiting every minute of his life on worthwhile goals. If you have the capacity to bring clean water to the world, what would be your obligation to spend the time on it?”
Lazarus, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1976 with a degree in theater and pyschology, has had a long career in Los Angeles as a director of both film and episodic television. Lazarus met Kamen some 30 years ago when he was directing a Cole Porter musical in Milford, N.H., and Kamen, who knew Lazarus’ father, came to see it. They became friendly and Lazarus subsequently worked with Kamen on some short films.
When Kamen talked to Lazarus in 2006 about his idea for an affordable, easy-to-use water purification system that could be distributed throughout the developing world, where potable water can be scarce and hard to reach, Lazarus realized that here was the seed of a feature documentary.
“I just thought it would be really interesting to capture going from an idea in his head to the reality of getting the technology out in the world,” Lazarus said.
The myth of invention, he said, is that innovators like Kamen “snap their fingers and things happen. The reality is that it can take 20 years to make something happen.”
What Kamen does differently from other entrepreneurs or business people, and what makes him successful, Lazarus said, is that he looks at a problem from the bottom up, rather than the top down. And he doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
If a woman in a Ghanaian village needs to get water for her family, and has to walk four hours to get that water, which may not even be clean, what is the solution?
To Kamen the answer is: get a portable water purification system into a village first, and then figure out how to build distribution networks. Kamen has a way, Lazarus said, of cutting through all the obvious bureaucratic and financial obstacles that would normally present themselves. “Dean keeps going in the face of all odds,” he said.
Coming up with a design for a water purification system is almost the easy part when compared to the challenge of installing them in the thousands of places throughout the world that need them. There is a eureka moment when Kamen realizes that there is one multi-national corporation that gets its product into the remotest of places, and that is the Coca-Cola Co. So Kamen goes after Coca-Cola to team up on distributing the systems, and persuades company officials to sign on. Even so, that’s hardly the end of the story.
“There are 206 countries with 206 different solutions. Nothing you do in Ghana applies to Ecuador and nothing you do in Ecuador applies to Mexico,” Lazarus said.
Lazarus is glad that he made the documentary, but if he does another feature he’ll find someone to organize the financing, rather than wearing both the directorial and money hats. “To make a full-length documentary and one that takes place on multiple continents was an extraordinarily daunting task. It’s been a very long seven years.”
And while familiarity, as the saying goes, can breed contempt, in the case of Dean Kamen, greater familiarity led to greater esteem. “One of the great things about Dean is how childlike he can be. He’s non-cynical, and non-biased, which helps you to break through to seeing things differently. My admiration for him is how much of that he retains,” Lazarus said.
Sling Sh ot screens this evening at 7 p.m. at the Loew Theater in the Black Family Visual Arts Center. For information and tickets go to hop.dartmouth.edu or call the Hopkins Center Box Office at 603-646-2422.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.