In 2012, The Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff reported on the World’s Strongest Girl, 10 year old Naomi Kutin, who, at the time, was about to start sixth grade at Yeshivat Noam Day School in New Jersey. Kutin, who had been setting powerlifting records since age eight and trains with her father, Ed, could lift nearly three times her body weight.
Documentary filmmaker Jessie Auritt read Zeveloff’s piece, and became fascinated by Kutin and her story. “I was intrigued that she was doing this male-dominated thing,” said Auritt, “and in the intersection between her Modern Orthodoxy and power lifting.” In spring 2013, Auritt began making a film about Kutin, her sport, and what it meant for her life as a preteen and eventually, teenaged girl. Auritt’s film, Supergirl, premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival on October 9th, and was recently shown at DOC NYC. The film was made over the course of three years, from the time Kutin was eleven until she was thirteen. Supergirl is Aufitt’s debut as a feature director and editor; her other films include The Birdman, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Short Documentary at Slamdance in 2013.
Supergirl, a nickname given to Kutin by her friends and family, is as much a film about creating one’s own identity as it is about a person with an extraordinary talent. In a truly cringe-worthy moment, Kutin reads the upsetting comments on her Facebook page( maintained by her father), strangers remarking primarily on her physical appearance, but also on her mother and father’s parenting skills, claiming they’re endangering their daughter’s health. This is ugliness that comes with, as described by Auritt, “to be doing an unconventional thing that’s not always accepted, in the spotlight of social media.”
Kutin openly struggles with stereotypical gender roles throughout Supergirl: What’s it like to be a super strong girl when you’re still in junior high? Can you be observant and Modern Orthodox in a wrestling singlet while squatting over 200 pounds? Are modesty, femininity and powerlifting inherently at odds with one another?
The documentary follows Kutin as she becomes a bat mitzvah, and realizes that she’s now, at least religiously, autonomous. “I don’t want to be responsible for myself,” she tells her mother, Nechama, as they drive to the mall in search of a dress for the ceremony. As we see over the course of the film, though, Kutin’s parents have always empowered her to make her own decisions, and she’s used that power to get to a place that’s both grounded and rich with possibility. “Naomi is at that point in her life where it’s typical to reject what your parents have given you,” said Auritt. “But she doesn’t do that, in either her religious or her athletic life.” It’s Kutin herself who decides whether or not to return to the bench when she misses a lift to try again, and who ultimately determines what it means to her to be Supergirl, to claim that identity, and all the subversiveness within it.
Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published at Previously.TV, The Billfold, Cosmopolitan, Rewire, Extra Crispy, and more. You can find her on Twitter at @chaneldubofsky.