It was hard not to hear about the remarkable story of surfer Bethany Hamilton when she was attacked by a 15-foot tiger shark in 2003, at the age of 13. It was headline news all over the world. That’s how I first learned about Hamilton and most of what I knew about her story. The update to her attack was even more spectacular, when she went back into the water and you saw the footage of her surfing again. Hamilton has traveled all around the world speaking about the attack and even wrote a book, “Soul Surfer,” that went on to become a Hollywood film with AnnaSophia Robb portraying the surfer. But as a spectator and being similar in age, I’ve kind of grown up with Hamilton and have learned tidbits here and there throughout her life, but none ever focused on her, the person.
Fast forward to the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival where Director/Director of Photography Aaron Lieber brings us the documentary film “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable.” For the last five years, Lieber has followed Hamilton and her family through the highs and lows she’s endured before and after the attack. It’s an exclusive and rare look into Hamilton’s world that we’ve never seen before. As one does, when you’ve seen someone in the media for a good part of your life, you form an idea of what that person must be like. I must say I was delighted, surprised and extremely inspired after watching the film.
Hamilton is not just the ‘shark-attack survivor’ that she gets boiled down to in headlines, but an incredible story of resilience, dedication, hard work and pursuing one’s dreams no matter what obstacles get in the way. And, oh yeah, she is a beast of an athlete (I mean that with mad respect). Lieber has such a rich subject in Hamilton and a rich landscape to work with and finds a beautiful way of untangling the story and highlighting and respecting the other subject in the film, the ocean. You learn and observe very quickly that the ocean and Hamilton are connected, and her passion for surfing never diminished even after the attack – it might have made it even stronger.
The film opens with Hamilton in the present trying to achieve one of her ambitious goals of surfing the gnarliest waves around the world. It was a strategic choice on the part of Lieber to not lead with the shark attack that Hamilton is known for, and I applaud that decision. This film will touch on her life before, during and after the attack, but you learn quickly from Hamilton that the attack has never defined who she is, so the documentary doesn’t either. The world may see her has one thing, but she sees herself as just a woman making her way in the world with what has been thrown at her.
Lieber is also there to witness the surprises of Hamilton’s life – including her surprise pregnancy – and the downfalls. There’s a moment in the film where you see Hamilton experience some pretty low times and I think that was important to show. She hasn’t accomplished everything in her life the first time she’s done something. You see the grind and hard work and sacrifice that she puts in to pursuing her dreams and goals in surfing. And yes, there’s a sweet montage of her surfing and the shots that were captured are captivating. I don’t really even know how to describe it, but you need to see it.
There is one thing that has stood out to me: some people want to call Hamilton “disabled,” and I hope this documentary changes that. When you see her doing the things she does, you just want to ask her how she does it, but Lieber shows you how she does it. He shows the countless falls in the ocean, the attention to detail with her training regime and more. Not to spoil anything, but for all the ladies out there, Hamilton even surfs in a competition while pregnant. I hope I have at least 1/10 of that spirit if I’m ever preggo. Seriously, she’s a mom, a pro-athlete and a humble person who is, as cheesy as it sounds, just pursuing and achieving her goals the only way she can – through hard work.
I’m all for a great inspiring story, but “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” goes one step further to show you what it takes to be so good at what you do despite whatever life throws at you. I may or may not have been on the verge of tears throughout watching this film.
If you’re at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, visit the website www.tribecafilm.com to find tickets. If you want to learn more about the film and when it’s coming to a city near you, visit https://www.unstoppablethefilm.net/.