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EXCLUSIVE: Unstoppable Director Aaron Lieber Discusses Documentary and the Brave Journey of Bethany Hamilton

Unstoppable takes on the true story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, the girl who lost her arm in a shark attack at the age of 13. Her attack became a massive story in the media, but it was Hamilton’s motivation and courage to go back to surfing that became an even stronger story. Following her attack, Hamilton went on a number of interviews and toured the world giving speeches about how she found the bravery to get back into the water. Now audiences have the chance to watch her story from her perspective.

Unstoppable director Aaron Lieber had followed Hamilton’s story for several years while working on short films in college. In an exclusive interview with Irvine Weekly, Lieber discussed how he wanted to put together a documentary about Hamilton’s story because he was so fascinated with it. “A lot of people don’t actually know what an incredible story she has,” Lieber said. 

(Courtesy of the artist)

Hamilton’s story became a feature film in the 2011 movie Soul Surfer. But instead of having actors and a script, Unstoppable shows real footage of what Hamilton went through following the attack, as well as what she accomplished as an adult. “People see her story through actors and actresses in Soul Surfer, but you couldn’t see real moments of her in the hospital. You didn’t see her become a mom. It’s actually her,” Lieber said.

Lieber also said he did everything he could to keep things easygoing for Hamilton during the filmmaking process.  “I had a camera in my hand and I just tried to be a fly on the wall and also communicate with her, like, ‘When we go to edit, know that if there are certain things you don’t want in the film, we’ll really discuss it.’ So I built that trust,” the director said. “When you’re shooting something and being vulnerable, it is nice to know that you have that control over a final say.”

Even though Hamilton has the reputation as the girl who lost her arm in a shark attack, Lieber said that one of the most important messages he wants people to see is that this woman is more than a trauma survivor she’s an athlete. “I think that’s a really powerful message to everybody who watches it,” he said. “Because the world may say you’re this or you’re that, but we’re all so many things. One point we’re maybe a track star or a football player. And another point we’re maybe a businessman or businesswoman. Or a mother or a father. So our identity and our perceptions of those identities are always kind of fluid and changing, and I think the media likes to package things in a way where sometimes that’s very singular. And I wanted to tell a story that really gives people more of a breath of even if you feel a certain way or being perceived in a certain way, you can continue to do what you’re passionate about and overcome those perceptions.”

(Courtesy of the artist)

Hamilton’s decision to go back to surfing turned her into one of the most admirable figures in sports history. Her accomplishments made Lieber want to share her story to show that no matter what challenges are faced, it comes down to making a choice whether to succumb to fear or to overcome it.

“When you see Bethany’s story, [you see that] something bad happened and she quickly made a decision that it wasn’t going to affect her long-term, that she was going to try. So she did. Then she was able to do more than she even thought after that incident. So I think it’s really important for people to remember that you can overcome your fear.”

Unstoppable opened in theaters July 12, showing at more than 200 theaters opening weekend and pulling in more $250,000. Lieber couldn’t be happier to put something out there that the public is supporting. “It’s a really cool feeling to make a film that has such a positive message and have it so well-received,” he said. 

Lieber always had a passion for surfing and was lucky enough to work with a number of other professional names. This includes Kelly Slater, Shane Dorian and John John Florence. Lieber also directed Zero to 100, the story of surfer Lakey Peterson. Having years of experience working with professional surfers, Lieber was proud to put this film together, and have a number of Hamilton’s friends and family became a part of it.

(Courtesy of the artist)

“It was really fun to see people open up and be so willing to communicate and discuss different aspects of her journey,” Lieber said. “Bethany’s family came to 500 hours of archive. So really just to be open and be vulnerable and share was really an honor.”

Audiences will not only see Hamilton’s process of becoming a star athlete in Unstoppable, but they will also see struggles she faced in her personal life. She learned how to gain muscle, cut food and change her sons’ diapers all with one arm. The film also has real footage of her hospital recovery as well as how she learned to balance on a surfboard and express hesitation about new changes. But despite her stress and frustration, Hamilton never gave up on her journey and she’s here to share it. “The film turned out the way that I feel represents Bethany rather than someone else trying to tell this story from a Hollywood perspective,” Lieber said. “It’s Bethany telling her own story the way she sees it.”


Unstoppable is currently in theaters.