'Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable,' Story of Surfer Who Overcame Shark Attack to Become World-Class Competitor, Comes to Home Entertainment Platforms
Aaron Lieber's documentary surrounds inspiring story with stunning visuals
I would be very hard-pressed to explain the mechanics of riding a surfboard -- mostly because I'm not tutored in physics or in surfing. But I feel safe in saying it requires strength, agility and, above all, balance.
Imagine, then, summoning the strength to paddle into the waves, climb onto the board and maintain balance, with just one arm. That only begins to hint at the physical achievement of Bethany Hamilton, the "soul surfer" who overcame a near fatal shark attack to become a champion surfer.
Hamilton's story of faith, perseverance and athletic skill is told in the documentary Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable, which made its debut on home entertainment platforms Tuesday, following a successful theatrical release over the summer. Aaron Lieber directed the film about the inspirational figure, now 29 and a mother of two.
She says that throughout all the pain and struggle that she's had in her life it's really God that's gotten her through all that.
Hamilton was a seasoned surfer of 13 when she went into the water off Kauai in October 2003. In an incident that would make headlines internationally, she was surfing that day when a tiger shark attacked, tearing off her left arm at the shoulder. Remarkably, within a matter of weeks the teenager was back in the ocean surfing again.
As a surfer himself, Lieber could understand the immense challenge of trying to surf without both arms.
"On some of these surf trips I took her surfboard out and tried to duck dive with one arm and tried to stand up with one arm and I failed miserably," he tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "Kelly Slater and these older male surfers... they all admit they don't think they could do it either."
The filmmaker marvels at the way Hamilton has adapted.
"Beyond the pushing up with one arm - that alone is difficult - the other really difficult thing is where you catch the wave. If you're paddling with two arms you can catch the wave much further out and get into the wave earlier. But I find when I watch her and film her surfing she's catching the wave at the very last second... I've seen her catch a wave without even paddling. She just scissor kicks, like a swimming move and just with the strength of her legs catches the wave. She definitely took something where most of us were like, 'Well, that's not possible' and just made it happen."
Unstoppable explores what sustained Hamilton through her recovery from the shark attack to resuming her surfing career.
"Her whole family and the way she was raised, they all went to church and prayed and are strong Christians and believers in God," Lieber comments. "Before the shark attack you see her mom asking her, 'What if a shark comes? What do you do?' And Bethany goes, 'You just pray.' You see that faith and that strength early on in her life and I think that's a big, if not the most important part to her, of how she's been able to move through everything so quickly is her faith and belief in God. She draws her strength from that. She says that throughout all the pain and struggle that she's had in her life it's really God that's gotten her through all that."
Lieber says he didn't plan at first to make feature length documentary.
"The original intent was to make this short six- to eight-minute high-performance piece and kind of show off her skills. But then as we got going we had this idea, 'Well, maybe we'll tell a bigger story if things kind of evolve in a way that allows us to,'" he recalls. "Then four months into shooting she got pregnant with her first kid, Tobias, and it was that point where I go, 'Okay, we're going to shift and try to tell this bigger story.' The film just kind of evolved as her life progressed."
Lieber traveled around the world to document Hamilton as she resumed competition at an elite level. Unstoppable contains stunning photography of the awesome power and beauty of the thunderous surf. Capturing those scenes required its own set of skills.
"A lot of it is just surf IQ and paying attention to the weather and doing your best to understand as much as you can so that you can kind of get the best moments," Lieber explains. "Fiji is a great example. It's all water-based [filming] so I've got to jump from boats to jet skis to other boats and decide where am I going to shoot, what camera am I going to use, what moment do I think may or may not happen. It's all just happening and I'm trying to not drop a camera in the water. It's trying to predict in your mind, 'Okay, she's going to be in the quarterfinal coming up. Is it more important that I get a surf shot or that I get a reaction of her, like when she's done with the heat?' So just trying to make all these decisions on the fly not knowing what's going to happen."
Hamilton's story has proven deeply inspiring to many people, Lieber among them.
"She works so hard at her craft and is so passionate about it and I love working with people like that. It's so motivating and inspiring to see that," Lieber affirms. "From an athlete's perspective that's something that really motivates and inspires me, but simultaneously, her relationship with her husband Adam is just super unique and special and how they courted each other and how they communicate with each other - I feel like watching them grow from individuals to a couple to now parents and seeing all that transformation - and Adam being a stay at home dad and how they're figuring out the balance of that - that's very unique. I find that very inspiring."
He adds, "They're such great people. It's been really a pleasure to be able to work with them on such an intimate level."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.