Riding the Wave
A surfer-cum-motivational speaker is at the center of director Aaron Lieber’s documentary, Unstoppable, which premieres at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. As a teenager, his subject—surfer Bethany Hamilton—suffered a crippling injury. Yet she kept at the sport and now, over ten years later, she’s one of the best surfers in the world. Sometimes she also uses her story to inspire crowds. Lieber has shot footage of sports and athletes for years, recently focusing on women who dominate the waves. Below, he discusses his new film.
You’ve made a number of films and photos that feature surfers. What appeals to you, as a director and photographer, about the sport?
The ocean is a special place to me. I really enjoy being near the water, and I surf, too. I grew up filming my friends skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing—I’d make short films for my classes. I was never the best surfer but I really enjoyed shooting photos and videos. As I got older, I just kept doing it and getting better at it. I was always inspired by other surf films and as a kid just dreamed about making my own. I think the most appealing part of the sport is the lifestyle. Traveling to the world’s most beautiful places is a dream come true.
You initially set out to make a short action film about Bethany’s skill set, which evolved into a feature-length documentary. At that point, how did you want to structure the story?
Once I realized this film had larger potential, I wanted to do my best to follow a three-act structure based on the hero’s journey. It has long proven to be the best way to thread a story together. It took a lot of time to figure out how to make it all work, but I had an amazing team and lead editor, Carol Martori. Carol was amazing to work with because she had so much experience making these types of films. She was incredible at helping me craft the story.
Describe some of your first meetings with Bethany. What most struck you about her?
I first met Bethany on a surf trip to Mexico with Carissa Moore (a three-time World Champion). What struck me the most was just her work ethic and how incredible of a surfer she is. It was so fun to get to film her surf, watching her passion for what she does translate into an incredible work ethic.
Bethany first came to national attention when she lost her arm to a tiger shark. How did you want to portray this tragedy within a much larger, more complex story?
It’s very obvious that the shark attack was a huge and significant moment in Bethany’s life. But I didn’t want that to be the driving force or narrative in this film. Bethany survived the attack and moved forward with her life very quickly. My goal with this film was the tell her story the way she saw it and the way she felt about it. I also don’t think it’s fair to be forever defined by the tragedies in our lives. I hoped to portray the attack as a speed bump on Bethany’s journey to becoming an incredible wife, mother, and one of the best surfers in the world.
Anything that ended up on the editing room floor, that you wish you could have kept?
Yes! There is so much more incredible footage and scenes that just didn’t fit. But hopefully we can release some bonus content… Stay tuned!
Bethany’s also a motivational speaker. How does her story resonate with a broader audience, which faces very different kinds of adversity?
I think Bethany story gives people hope in their lives. I also think there’s so much focus these days about finding your personal passion, but on its own that can be a hollow pursuit. It’s stories like Bethany’s that connect us back to the reality of enjoying God in our passions as the place to find deep wholeness.