Delaware County native Jessie Auritt’s first feature-length documentary is titled Supergirl, but its hero doesn’t wear a cape or come from Krypton.
Naomi Kutin, 16, comes from Fair Lawn, N.J., where she has made a name for herself as a record-breaking power lifter, first gaining media attention in 2012 for lifting 215 pounds as a 97-pound 10-year-old. That record previously belonged to a 44-year-old woman, so you might say Kutin, who started lifting at 8, is imbued with a little super-strength.
“I have a bad habit of naming my films after superheroes,” Aurrit, whose previous short film The Birdman took home a documentary award from Slamdance in 2013, says. “I need to get more creative with titles.”
Supergirl focuses on Kutin’s career in the male-dominated world of power lifting, as well as her Orthodox Jewish upbringing, which can be at odds with her chosen sport. Filmed when Kutin was 11 to 14, the documentary is available to stream on Amazon and previously aired on WHYY as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series.
Auritt, 33, a Wallingford native with a degree in psychology from Tufts University, came across Kutin’s story after she broke the world record for her weight class. She connected with the Kutin family, and began working on the documentary almost immediately after establishing a relationship with them.
Auritt, who was raised culturally Jewish, says she was primarily interested in the relationship between Kutin’s Modern Orthodox Judaism and her power-lifting prowess. Kutin typically had to make special arrangements to lift at competitions on Sundays, as Saturdays are Shabbat, when Orthodox Jews cannot drive, use electricity, or handle money, among other restrictions. (Auritt also could not film with the Kutins on Saturdays.)
Kutin also has been criticized for wearing a wrestling singlet when she lifts. The uniform is more revealing than the modest clothing Orthodox Jewish women wear.
Aside from that, though, Auritt says the worlds of Orthodox Judaism and power lifting have gotten along nicely.
“From what I know about people in [the Orthodox Jewish] community, women and girls typically have very traditional gender roles and don’t do a lot of sports in general — particularly a male-dominated sport like power lifting,” she says. “To be honest, I thought there was going to be more of a conflict between her sport and religion. It was actually quite the opposite. Her and her family were really embraced by both communities.”
The film takes place during a great period of growth in Kutin’s life; she’s entering high school by the end. Auritt says she watched Kutin transform physically, mentally, and emotionally into a confident, mature person, while retaining her love of power lifting.
“It’s much more about her coming-of-age story and her finding herself, and power lifting and her religion are just the backdrop for that story,” Auritt says. “For her, it was also in the public spotlight, dealing with these competitions and the stakes of breaking world records while also adhering to her religious beliefs.”
Much of Supergirl deals with Kutin’s working out whether she is power lifting for herself or for her father. She began power lifting as a child to spend more time with him — he’s an amateur power lifter — but kept with it as she got older, and the sport ultimately became part of her identity.
“That time in your life is really when you’re figuring out who you are as an independent individual,” Auritt says. “Now, she does it really for her, and because she loves it, and not because of external factors.”
Those external factors include online trolls, as Auritt illustrates in Supergirl. Kutin routinely receives derogatory comments on Facebook and YouTube, some of which she reads aloud in the film. That type of treatment is expected these days no matter what someone does, Auritt says, even if it’s just a kid trying to lift weights.
“It was shocking to see there are people who would troll an 11-year-old girl,” the director says. “But it is a reality that she faces just being in the public spotlight.”
Most Jewish audiences — the film has been screened everywhere from Jewish film festivals to Orthodox synagogues — received Supergirl positively, but Auritt acknowledges there are sects of Judaism that are more conservative that wouldn’t agree with the Kutins and their power-lifting daughter. However, Auritt hasn’t shown the film to them and doesn’t think they’re that interested.
Criticism, however, hasn’t stopped Kutin. She is still at it, and, according to the New York Times, has raised her dead lift to 365 pounds and her squat to 321 pounds — significantly higher than the 215-pound lift that brought her attention in the first place.
A junior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, N.J., Kutin — who was in Israel running the Jerusalem marathon when I spoke to Auritt — is still breaking records for her age group. With any luck, Kutin’s passion for power lifting will inspire viewers to try it themselves.
“Her nickname is ‘Supergirl,’ but she’s a real-life hero in that way,” Auritt says. “It’s important for young girls to see someone on screen that they can look up to, but it also changes the dynamic for everyone to show a young girl can do this. Breaking that stereotype and that norm is important.”