“Showcasing a normal girl doing extraordinary things, Supergirl is a health tonic for this cramping climate of resurgent sexism underway where girls everywhere are struggling to understand their worth,” wrote Lora Grillo in The Playlist. The documentary Supergirl, which premieres on Independent Lens on PBS December 18 at 10 pm [check local listings], explores the life and lifting prowess of pre-teen (now teen) New Jersey girl Naomi Kutin. She seems a typical girl in many ways, with a spunky spirit and a love of her family, with one notable exception: She’s a world champion powerlifter.

Supergirl filmmaker Jessie Auritt, an award-winning short doc filmmaker whose first feature-length documentary this is, talked to us about getting to know this amazing girl, working within the confines of the Orthodox Jewish faith, briefly trying powerlifting herself, and how this film can inspire others.

What led you to want to make Supergirl?

I was initially drawn to this story because I was intrigued that an Orthodox Jewish girl, whose religion typically has traditional gender roles, was breaking stereotypes and participating in the male-dominated sport of powerlifting. I wanted to explore the dichotomy of her world and see how it changed over time as she got older. I thought that it was an interesting and unique subject that I hadn’t seen in a film before, so I made Supergirl.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making it?

Supergirl was the first feature documentary I directed and produced, so there were some challenges every step of the way in terms of figuring out the best practices. Fundraising was probably one of the biggest challenges we faced, as I know it is for a lot of independent filmmakers. Being a first-time feature director, and also not having any big names attached to the project, definitely made it difficult to compete against all of the other grant applications. Also, since the film is not primarily the type of social issue film that so many film grants are geared toward, there weren’t a lot of funding opportunities available.

How did you gain the trust of the Kutins in order to make the movie?

Right from the start, the Kutin family was pretty open to the idea of the documentary, but gaining their full trust was a process that took place over the course of three years of filming. We spent a lot of time with the Kutins without cameras, just chatting and sharing about our personal lives, and even slept over at their house and had a couple holiday meals together, which helped to build our relationship. Overall, it was important to be as transparent as possible and make sure that the family understood the filmmaking process and were on board with the story we were trying to tell.   

Supergirl filmmaker Jessie Auritt
Supergirl filmmaker Jessie Auritt

What are some of the things you’d love for audiences to take away from Supergirl after they watch it? What discussions would you like to see it inspire?

I hope that Supergirl will be a source of empowerment and inspiration for people, particularly women and girls, to not be afraid to pursue their goals, even in the face of adversity. I also hope that audiences will identify and empathize with Naomi and her family on a personal level that will transcend any preconceived stereotypes or stigmas. An interesting discussion that I think the film will inspire, is that of parenting – what does it mean to be a supportive parent and what’s pushing your child too much.  

If you don’t mind my asking, what was your own religious background and upbringing, and how did those experiences make you reflect on Naomi’s as an Orthodox Jewish girl?

I was raised in a culturally Jewish home, but I never belonged to a synagogue and didn’t go to Hebrew school or have a Bat Mitzvah. I grew up celebrating the high holidays with extended family and as an adult, have an appreciation for the traditions. Religion has never been a big part of my life, but has always intrigued me from a psychological/sociological perspective, and I even took a few religion courses in college.

Although religion is not a huge part of the film, the fact that Naomi and her family are Orthodox, initially drew me to the story. Even though we are both Jewish, Naomi’s upbringing is quite different from my own, and I was interested in understanding that experience.

And did the Kutin family’s beliefs affect making the film, if at all?

One thing to clarify, which some people ask about, is that Naomi and her family never lift during Shabbat (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown). A lot of powerlifting contests take place on Saturday so they often have to make special arrangements so that Naomi can lift on Sunday, which is typically reserved for the heavyweight men. We also were not able to film the Kutins during Shabbat or any high holidays.  

Did you encounter any pushback from others in the Orthodox Jewish community about telling Naomi’s story, or does her family experience any, or is it all supportive?

“Naomi and her family never lift during Shabbat…A lot of powerlifting contests take place on Saturday so they often have to make special arrangements so that Naomi can lift on Sunday, which is typically reserved for the heavyweight men.” We did not encounter any direct pushback from the Orthodox Jewish community while making the film. The Kutin’s community is very supportive of Naomi and was open to us filming, both at her religious school and synagogue (except during shabbat or high holidays of course). We even interviewed Naomi’s rabbi (although it didn’t make it into the film) and he also seemed to support Naomi’s powerlifting pursuits. Some people from more observant sects have expressed their disapproval to the Kutins about Naomi lifting. We also received some messages criticizing Naomi’s “immodest” clothes in the film, but that’s been the extent of any negativity.        

Have you ever lifted weights yourself? Did Naomi give you any pointers?

Aside from workouts with my high school track team, and very casually at the gym, I have not lifted weights. A couple times when we were filming Naomi training at her home, I unsuccessfully attempted to lift the amount that she warms up with… those weights are no joke!

Was there anything you had to leave out of the finished film you’d love audiences to still know about?

There’s so much that sadly didn’t make the cut, as is often the case with documentary films. One scene that I absolutely loved, was one morning before school, Naomi goes down to the basement to exercise her dog on the treadmill. It was a pure moment of verité of the dog running on the treadmill and Naomi eating cereal, but it ultimately didn’t have a place in the film. It is included in the deleted scenes on the DVD however!

What’s your own favorite scene in Supergirl?

[Mild spoiler ahead:] One of my favorite scenes is toward the end of the film when Naomi is training with her parents in the basement for an upcoming contest. She attempts to do a deadlift twice, but is unable to budge the weight. Naomi doesn’t want to try again, but after some cajoling and reverse psychology from her parents (and some serious teenage side-eye from Naomi) there’s a visible shift within her and she gets up and lifts the weight. In that moment, you definitely see Naomi transition into her “Supergirl” alter-ego and it’s pretty powerful to watch. I think this scene also sort of encapsulates some of the major themes of the film and you can see Naomi becoming her own person and taking things into her own hands.   

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

I watch a lot of documentaries and try to glean something from all of them. It’s too difficult to narrow it down to just three!

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I currently have a couple independent film projects that I’m developing and am also working as a freelance editor.

Do you have any updates on Naomi? What’s she up to these days (literally up to or from a lifting standpoint)?

Naomi is now 16 years old and a junior at an all-girls Jewish high school. She’s powerlifting more than ever, with current personal bests of a 321 lbs Squat, 127 lbs bench and 363 lbs deadlift. She’s doing well and is healthy and studying for the SATs.