The wait is finally over for Australians excited to see pro surfer and shark-attack survivor Bethany Hamilton’s biopic Unstoppable, with a limited release across the country. Bethany’s story is beyond inspiring, deftly encapsulated in this documentary, and you don’t need to know the first thing about surfing to be profoundly moved by it.
Growing up in the surfing town of Honolua Bay on the North Shore of Kauai, Bethany had her eyes set on a professional surfing career from a very young age. As one of three children in a surf-mad household, getting out on the water was a family priority, and both parents worked two to three jobs to maintain the idealised lifestyle.
“Everything was designed around taking care of the family and having time to surf.” – Cheri Hamilton (Bethany’s mother)
When she got up on the board herself at the age of six, the family quickly realised there was something very special about Bethany. Early on Bethany’s parents gave her a great deal of freedom, allowing her to go out and surf whenever she wanted to, enabling her to build confidence and independence in the water. By the age of eight, she knew she was going to be a pro surfer. Bethany and her best friend Alana Blanchard – who would also become a pro surfer – recall taking great pride in out surfing the boys of Kauai.
That Fateful Day
In October 2003, while surfing along Tunnels Beach with Alana, Bethany was attacked by a fourteen-foot tiger shark that severed her left arm from the shoulder down. By that time, thirteen-year-old Hamilton was considered a sure bet to go professional. Everything Bethany had been working towards was gone.
As we know, what could have been the interruption to a very short-lived surfing career was actually the beginning of something far larger, but this doesn’t dampen the emotional viewing experience, as Bethany’s loved ones recount the time that followed the attack. This, of course, is the power of documentary filmmaking, and the validation for such a film despite its already existing sibling Soul Surfer. In Unstoppable we get a very different experience.
A Triumphal Return
As his third surfing documentary, Aaron Lieber takes a non-linear approach to the story structure, building its arc around Bethany’s decision to take on the monstrous wave ‘Jaws’ on the North Shore of Maui. With waves upwards of eighteen metres, Jaws is one of the most dangerous surfing destinations in the world.
“I surfed out there two or three times, that place is so scary.” – Kelly Slater
The film is made up of cinematic footage taken by Lieber himself, interwoven with home video taken by Bethany’s family, and archive footage gathered from the news, media and surfing tournaments. The result is extensive and compelling. Particularly interesting is some of the old footage seen in the opening of the film – clips captured shortly after the attack of the semi-devoured surfboard and Bethany processing the life-changing incident as she recovers in the hospital.
The film is rated PG for mild themes as it explores the aftermath of a shark attack and many images inadvertently show people in their cossies.
An Unashamed Christian
Bethany is unashamed of her Christian faith, speaking openly of how her faith in God is what has got her through all the pain and struggles she has faced in her life. Certainly Bethany has led a successful life and achieved a lot, but what is most inspiring in the documentary is witnessing the knocks and defeats she encounters, and her mentality to move forward in spite of them. Bethany refuses to be put in a box by words such as ‘disability’ or ‘shark girl’. She prefers to see herself as adaptive, and not allow her deficiencies to stop her from trying.
Bethany’s faith clearly influences her outlook on life. In one of the early home videos from before the attack, Bethany is asked what she does about her fear of sharks. Without batting an eyelid she responds “just pray.” In another, while reflecting on the attack as she recovered in the hospital she expressed how glad she was that it was her out in the water and not anyone else. Bethany’s relationship with God gives her absolute confidence in God’s plan for her life, even when things appear to be going awry. She maintains God’s goodness at all times and his promise to make good out of the worst situations.
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