Surfer film goes out on a limb

By Helen Barlow

The life of surfing champ shark attack victim Bethany Hamilton is getting the big-screen treatment. She talks to Helen Barlow.

Champion surfer Bethany Hamilton, (played by AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer) wants to inspire people. Photo / AP
Champion surfer Bethany Hamilton, (played by AnnaSophia Robb in Soul Surfer) wants to inspire people. Photo / AP

Bethany Hamilton is a 21-year-old champion surfer who was born and raised in Hawaii and seemingly has been on a board since she was in nappies. Her life is famous now and not because of her surfing, but because one day, eight years ago, a shark took her arm. She wrote a book about her experience, her sister-in-law made a documentary in 2005, Heart of A Soul Surfer, and now her experiences have been turned into a feature film, Soul Surfer, which did surprisingly well in America.

"I think surfing interests people and shark attacks definitely interest people," she says with a gulp, when we meet at the Cannes Film Festival, where her film screened. "I have realised that."

Far from a Jaws-style thriller - "We didn't want to go there," she says - this is an inspirational story of survival, that comes hot on the heels of 127 Hours, which depicted how Aron Ralston survived a canyoning accident by chopping off his forearm. Hamilton's survival also stemmed from her ability to remain clear-headed; she didn't panic, even as she was losing more blood than usually allows a human to remain alive. The story shows her determination to continue doing the thing she loved, surfing, and how her non-denominational Christian faith and travelling to Thailand after the tsunami provided her inspiration.

Her meeting with Thai children is a poignant moment in the film.

"It was about a year after the tsunami and the kids hadn't put their foot in the ocean, so it was really cool to encourage them to go in the water," she recalls. "Fishing is such a huge part of their culture and other things involving the water. So that was my goal, to help them get back into the water. We took them to the beach and taught them how to surf. There was that one little boy [in the film] who hadn't smiled since the tsunami and he did and that was really cool. It was probably one of the best trips of my life, for sure."

As she watched the film nothing was really a surprise, because together with her family she was so involved in helping keep it accurate and authentic. Her parents, who are both accomplished surfers, certainly helped her continue with her passion for the sport. A remarkably buff Dennis Quaid plays her dad, Helen Hunt is her athletic mum, while the tall, broad-shouldered Bethany is portrayed by the petite Bridge to Terabithia star AnnaSophia Robb, with the help of CGI.

"My dad enjoyed getting to know Dennis. They went golfing and surfing and my mum went surfing with Helen. I taught AnnaSophia how to surf, together with my coach. I did a lot of Bethany's stunt surfing."

Understandably, Hamilton doesn't want to discuss those big-toothed critters with fins on their backs, even if she does appreciate their point of view.

"We are over-fishing the ocean," she says. "If we would all just not eat as much fish. I will eat fish once a week but some people almost live on it."

She will, however, talk to other shark attack victims via her non-profit organisation, Friends of Bethany.

"My goal is to reach out to shark attack victims or amputees, because when I initially lost my arm I was able to talk to a guy who had lost his leg and it had a really great impact on me. It gave me hope to see that he was having an awesome life. He is a very talented photographer and surfer. Generally I will only meet people if I am in the area, otherwise we will send them a book or give them a phone call or write them a letter."

The experience of losing her arm meant she was thrown into maturity, she says. Suddenly she had to make important decisions and life choices. Initially she welcomed the media attention, then her schedule with her surfing commitments became too tight.

"Now that I am older I see how, just by sharing my story, whether people see the film or read my book or if they just read an article in a magazine, it can affect their day or their life."

Unlike Ralston, who is a millionaire after his book became a best-seller and who earns well from his motivational speaking, Hamilton says she "hasn't made any money yet".

"I haven't met Aron, but he was amazing. His experience was definitely gnarlier than mine. I couldn't watch his whole film, I fast-forwarded. But overall, I enjoyed it.

Ralston, of course, had numerous operations and took years to recover. While in some ways Hamilton's scars were more emotional, in order to maintain her strong physique she has been working on her posture and undertaking spinal correction therapy for the past two years.

"I wish I could show you my routine but it is pretty insane and is making a huge difference in my health and keeping my body in alignment," she says. Hamilton, who still ranks 20th on the women's professional circuit, says she is setting off for a few surfing competitions in Europe before heading for Indonesia. Clearly, as she ogles the sparkling blue Mediterranean before her, she simply can't wait to get back in the water.

LOWDOWN

Who: Bethany Hamilton,
What: Soul Surfer
When: Opens June 9

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