Pro Surfer Bethany Hamilton Shows Her ‘Real’ Self in New Documentary

Since first making headlines in 2003 for surviving a shark attack when she was 13 years old, Bethany Hamilton has become one of the most recognizable surfers in the world. In 2011, Hamilton’s story received the Hollywood treatment with the movie “Soul Surfer,” based on her autobiography.

But the new documentary “Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” is about being authentically herself, as a competitive athlete, wife and mother. 

“There are struggles and issues and things I have to overcome beyond just the loss of my arm,” Hamilton told Variety at the film’s premiere on Tuesday night at the Arclight Hollywood. “I celebrate ‘Soul Surfer.’ I loved it. But people are going to get to know the real Bethany through this film.”

Shot over a period of six years and in everywhere from Tahiti to Maui, “Unstoppable” tracks the Hawai’i-born surfer, 29, from her early days as a fiery competitor on the amateur circuit to losing her arm and her ascent to action sports stardom.

What started as a six-minute long surf video grew into a 90-minute long feature, partly thanks to a crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign that raised over $116,000, said director Aaron Lieber, one of Variety’s 10 Documentarians to Watch in 2018

It also highlights what Hamilton said she has always been: an athlete with ambitions to compete at the highest level of the sport and riding some of the most dangerous waves in the world, like at Pe’ahi, or “Jaws” on the island of Maui, where waves can reach upwards of 80 feet. Surfing — and filming — those waves were no easy tasks. 

“Surfing 60-foot waves is a serious matter. We had a safety team, Bethany had her training and safety vests,” Lieber said. For Jaws in particular, Lieber used five camera operators and hired a helicopter crew for sweeping land-to-sea aerial shots.

In the film, Hamilton trains obsessively to not only conquer Jaws but also compete at various World Surf League women’s championship tour contests in California and Fiji, all with husband, Adam Dirks, and son, Tobias, in tow (she gave birth to her second son, Wesley, last year).

Bethany Hamilton, Adam Dirks'Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable' documentary premiere, Los Angeles, USA - 09 Jul 2019
CREDIT: MediaPunch/Shutterstock

Hamilton said she hopes the film inspires young girls to pursue their athletic dreams, however ambitious they may be. Other female athletes — like the World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national soccer team — can look to women’s surfing for inspiration for pay equality. The World Surf League reached pay equality for both the men’s and women’s championship tours last year, awarding athletes equal prize money at each WSL-sanctioned event. 

Surfing will make its Olympic debut at the 2020 summer games in Tokyo.

“I think female surfing has grown so much in the past years because we’ve been pushing it. Social media has also opened that door to grow that sport,” said Hamilton. “I’m just so excited to see the next 20, 30 years how [women’s] surfing’s going to progress.”

Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” is in theaters July 12.

More Film


    SAG-AFTRA Leaders Approve Proposal for New Film-TV Contract

    The SAG-AFTRA national board has approved proposals for a successor deal to its master contract covering feature film and primetime television — a key step in the upcoming negotiations cycle with companies. The board approved the package Saturday with the performers union declining to reveal any specifics — its usual policy. The board established the wages [...]

  • Cameron Crowe, David Crosby, A.J. Eaton.

    Cameron Crowe on Why He Loved Leaving David Crosby Doc on a CSNY Question Mark

    David Crosby may or may not have stuck a joint in Cameron Crowe’s mouth the first time he ever met the future filmmaker, when Crosby was peaking with Crosby Stills Nash & Young and his interviewer was a precocious 15-year-old Rolling Stone correspondent. As Crowe said to Jimmy Kimmel the other night, “I remember it [...]

  • Mokalik

    Nigeria’s Kunle Afolayan: African Audiences Shouldn’t Be ‘Second-Class’

    DURBAN–A young boy from a middle-class home gets an unconventional schooling in the ways of the world when he’s forced to apprentice at a mechanic’s workshop in a rough-and-tumble section of Lagos. “Mokalik” is the latest feature from Kunle Afolayan, a leading figure in the wave of filmmakers revitalizing the Nigerian film industry. The film [...]

  • Alicia Rodis photographed by Alicia Rodis

    SAG-AFTRA Moves to Standardize Guidelines for Intimacy Coordinators

    SAG-AFTRA is moving to standardize guidelines for intimacy coordinators as part of an effort to establish policies for union members when their work involves nudity and simulated sex. “Our goal is to normalize and promote the use of intimacy coordinators within our industry,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris. “Intimacy coordinators provide an important safety net for [...]

  • The Lion King

    Box Office: 'The Lion King' Roars Overseas With Mighty $269 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” certainly felt the love this weekend, generating $269 million at the international box office. Director Jon Favreau’s remake of the classic Disney cartoon now holds the eighth-biggest debut of all time overseas, and that’s not including the film’s early opening in China last weekend. Combined with a stellar $185 million start [...]

  • Scarlett JohanssonMarvel Studios panel, Comic-Con International,

    Scarlett Johansson Reveals What We'll Learn About Black Widow in Stand-Alone Movie

    Scarlett Johansson can finally talk about her upcoming “Black Widow” movie. While she can’t divulge spoilers, she let out a big sigh of relief after the film was officially announced on Saturday during the Marvel Studios presentation at Comic-Con. “I feel like a weight has been lifted,” the Oscar nominee told Variety. “Black Widow” is [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content