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AFI Docs Review: “Slingshot”

A look at a Dean Kamen’s life of innovation and his quest to solve the global problem of access to clean water.

Image courtesy of AFI Docs.

No one can argue that clean water, and access to it, is a pressing global health issue that isn’t going away anytime soon. As repeated early and often throughout Slingshot, more than a billion people lack access to safe water.

The film shows multiple clips of women, children, families clearing trash and debris in order to collect water to bathe or cook with; and as you watch a child scoop trace amounts of water from a tiny puddle of mud just to capture whatever he can, it’s impossible not to remember all those times you left the faucet running a few extra seconds while brushing your teeth. The stark images and statistics are a reminder that those TV commercials appealing for just ten cents a day are barely scratching the surface.

Slingshot makes compelling arguments, and is worth watching as both as an exploration of the potential solutions to this crisis and as a celebration of the extraordinary life of Dean Kamen. His name may not ring a bell, but his inventions certainly will. Anyone in DC during the summertime will have seen packs of tourists whipping around the Mall on Kamen’s most (in)famous creation, the Segway.

Kamen is a fascinating figure that few outside the tech world probably know, which is a shame. Many mock the Segway, but Kamen’s contributions to science and medicine through developments in dialysis and robotics is stunning, and listening to him balance his passion to see the clean water solution succeed (the film is named for the water distilling machine he creates) with the business and cultural realities on the ground both excites and frustrates.

Still, after multiple viewings of Slingshot, instead of questioning the film’s ability to move the needle on the clean water issue, I was instead left questioning its pacing.

To put it in scientific terms, the documentary is two parts Kamen, one part water.

While presenting a compelling argument for why his technology has the chance to dramatically alter the future of access to clean water, the film often kills its own momentum by refocusing the camera on Kamen to examine some aspect or another of his personal life. As he arrives at a technological breakthrough with the Slingshot, we break for a talk about his highly successful FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) conferences. Just as the research group starts a pilot project, we step aside to hear about Kamen’s father’s art career. As we learn of potential partnership with Coca-Cola to distribute the Slingshot machines, the film hits the pause button to deal with a death in Kamen’s family. All of these moments, and many more, are worth exploring, but there never appears to be a connective thread as to why and when the breaks occur.

A theme Kamen returns to often is time: how little each of us has of it while alive, and how we choose to spend it. He yearns for a time machine, and viewers will wish he had one, if only to continue realizing the amazing ideas in his imagination.

Playing June 21, 6:45 PM at AFI Silver Theatre, and June 22, 1:30 PM at Naval Heritage Center.

Return to AFI Docs page.