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).
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.