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Surf’s still up

Film explores the remarkable life of pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, 15 years after her shark attack

Surf’s still up

(Aaron Lieber)

Under blue water, a grown-up Bethany Hamilton was motionless, suspended in the deep ocean. There was a shark behind her. Hamilton, a victim once before of a shark attack, didn’t flinch but stared ahead. The shark kept swimming. Soon she was back above the surface and grabbing her surfboard.

That scene is in a new documentary about the professional surfer, Unstoppable, that is scheduled for release this fall. Hamilton won her first surfing championship when she was 8 years old, and then again when she was 12. In 2003, when she was 13, a shark attacked her in the water, and she lost her left arm and a lot of blood. Four weeks after the attack, she was back in the water and doing what seemed impossible, learning to surf with one arm.

She has said over and over in years since that her Christian faith has given her the emotional and spiritual strength to do all of this.

The 2011 movie Soul Surfer told Hamilton’s teenage story, but until now there has never been a documentary on the life of the girl who grew up to be a top pro surfer, wife, and mother. Unstoppable is a combination of a surf film—long shots of Hamilton taking on big waves or pulling off aerial tricks—and a biography tracking Hamilton from teenage surf phenomenon to adult professional.

The documentary’s director, surf filmmaker Aaron Lieber, had never seen Soul Surfer until the final stages of making the documentary. He’s filmed the biggest names in surfing, like world champion Kelly Slater and wunderkind Noah Beschen. “They all have this work ethic that I really enjoy,” said Lieber. “Having to do everything with one arm, she has to work even harder. … My interest was her ability in the water.”

Lieber knew Hamilton could surf with the best. She’s had frustrations in pro competitions but won a pipeline showdown in 2014. He also knew she had star power, because he recalls in the course of filming that fans would mob them at airports. He remembered they went surfing in California one time, just for fun, and by the time they got back to the car a line had formed in the parking lot, with people wanting to meet her.

The documentary doesn’t dwell on the attack itself. Lieber remembered that he didn’t notice the injury when he met her: “She has her shoulders back, she’s got great posture, she’s very confident. I think her nonverbal language, the way she walks through life, you see her for … how she carries herself.”


Hamilton with her husband and two children (Handout)

Before the attack, Hamilton was a rising surfing star and her parents were working multiple jobs to support her surfing. Her story has not lacked for media treatment, but this film has new home videos from her younger years that add texture. Hamilton’s dad dug through their attic and found a dusty box of videos for Lieber, and at one point Lieber recovered videos from a failed drive. He ended up with 400 hours of old videos.

In one of those home videos from before the attack, Bethany Hamilton’s mom Cheri Hamilton is talking to young Bethany and her best friend and fellow surfer Alana Blanchard.

“Are you concerned about sharks at all?” the mom asks. Blanchard puts a magazine over her face in response.

“Yes,” said Bethany. “You just pray.”

Blanchard was surfing with Bethany when the shark attacked her. Lieber said the attack seemed to have traumatized Blanchard more than Bethany—when he, Blanchard, and Bethany were swimming with sharks at one point during filming, he recalled that Blanchard was more scared than Bethany and felt nauseous afterward.

A month after the attack, Bethany slowly started surfing again, her dad figuring out a board modification so she could grip the board while paddling past the breakers. In 2005, she won a national championship, thanking Jesus Christ by name when she received the trophy.

In the decade since, she has continued professional surfing and making the media rounds with her story, even while she fell agonizingly short of championships for some time while her contemporaries went on to dominate.

In 2013 Hamilton married Young Life staffer Adam Dirks, whom she met through church friends in Hawaii. Not long after their marriage she found out she was pregnant, raising her anxiety about how she would change a diaper or cradle her baby. She continued surfing through pregnancy, with Dirks as the dutiful dad who would join her for surf sessions too. They now have two children, and say they do “ministry together.”

A few months after giving birth to her first child, Bethany decided that she wanted to ride the surf break in Hawaii called Jaws, a spot that consistently has some of the biggest waves in the world. Experienced big wave surfers say Jaws scares them. Lieber and his camera went along for the ride.

The day she went out, with Dirks in a nearby boat and the baby with a baby sitter, the waves were 40 feet high. Lieber’s experience as a surf filmmaker was key at this moment, capturing incredible footage of Bethany taking on a skyscraper wave. Some of these passages come across as a slick surfing ad for Bethany Hamilton, but she seems worth advertising.

Aaron Lieber

Hamilton surfing Jaws in Hawaii. (Aaron Lieber)

Lieber shot the documentary for four years, surfing big waves with Bethany and following her family around to surf competitions and to her meetings (through her nonprofit Friends of Bethany) with young girls missing limbs.

As many documentarians must, Lieber patched together financing for the project. Hamilton’s sponsor Rip Curl provided initial funding, then Lieber and Bethany did a Kickstarter campaign when that ran out. Then Corkcicle, another Bethany sponsor, provided more funding.

“Once I ran out of all that money, I got an investor, and when I ran out of that money I got another investor, and now we’re done,” Lieber said with a laugh. Most funding went to postproduction, bringing in three editors, a composer, and a graphics colorist. They spent a full year editing.

On how to portray her faith in the film, Lieber said he and Bethany and Adam butted heads—in a friendly way, because they all consider themselves Christians.

“She wants it to be over the top—not that that’s a bad thing,” said Lieber. “It’s who she is.” But he argued that a film was for storytelling, not preaching a message, and he didn’t want to “answer too many questions too early” in the story. The film doesn’t bury her faith but naturally incorporates it into what’s happening in her life, such as in her speech after she won the 2005 championship.

The result is that a movie that closes with a Bible verse from 1 Chronicles (“Give thanks to the Lord … his love endures forever”) gained acceptance into Tribeca, a festival that tends to focus on “woke” films. Lieber said none of the festival staff ever brought up the faith element with him and everyone at the festival received him and Bethany warmly. They especially embraced the rare big-screen treatment of a professional female athlete.

But what about that terrifying shark shot with Bethany? Lieber explained it while sitting in a penthouse lounge at the festival, with a horde of nonthreatening puppies playing on the floor behind him. (A Tribeca press contact was unable to explain the presence of a pile of puppies in the lounge.) The shark shot was the first time Bethany had intentionally jumped in the water with sharks since the attack, although she certainly is around them regularly as a surfer. The type of shark you’re swimming with matters, Lieber said. They had a local shark expert with them, and these sharks were blacktip reef sharks, which are slightly smaller and gentler and have never fatally attacked a human. Being fully submerged helps too, so sharks can see you and you can see them.

The shark that attacked Bethany was a 14-foot tiger shark; as they were swimming, there was a chance a tiger shark would show up, but the biggest one they saw was a Galapagos shark. Lieber said it was in Hamilton’s nature “to face your fears.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.