A documentary now showing at film festivals tells the story of a seriously strong little girl. JW magazine spoke with filmmaker Jessie Auritt and 15-year-old powerlifter Naomi Kutin, the subject of Supergirl. As an Orthodox Jew and a female athlete, Kutin is not only breaking records, but also shattering stereotypes.
by Lauren Landau
Naomi Kutin seems like your typical American preteen. Her bedroom is decorated in her favorite colors. There’s a photo from a family trip to Disney World and also a collection of trophies. But these aren’t the gold-colored plastic t-ball mementos so many kids have on their bookshelves. Kutin's prizes are for powerlifting.
A documentary directed by Jessie Auritt is currently bringing this remarkable child’s story to film festival audiences across the country. Fittingly titled Supergirl, it follows Kutin and her family on the competition circuit and through her training regimen. It opens with the sound of loud grunting and a girl, Kutin, pacing and pumping herself up in her home gym. Viewers may spy the mezuzah on a doorframe.
A sign bears one of Kutin's personal mantras: “No fear.” As she later explains, it’s all mental. If you think you can achieve something, then you can do it. In her bedroom, she picks up an award and shows it to the camera.
“This one is when I set the all-time world record for the first time, in July of 2011, and it was very cool,” she casually says.
No kidding. At just nine years old, the tiny girl squatted 205 lbs in the 2011 Anti-Drug Athletes United (ADAU) Nationals, beating out adult contestants to set the world powerlifting record in the women’s 97-pound class.
“I thought only men could do it when I first saw it, but I was wrong,” Kutin says.
And her parents, as it turns out, were spot on when they decided their little girl was strong enough to compete. Her father, Ed Kutin, has been doing competitive powerlifting for more than 30 years and inspired his daughter to get involved.
But this documentary isn’t about him. It’s about the strongest girl in the world, though her family and their personal story is certainly part of it. A close-knit family, Kutin, her parents, and her little brother are Orthodox Jews.
When she set out to create Supergirl, Auritt expected the Kutin’s religion would be a dominant theme. In the end, it was more of a contextual detail.
“It became apparent that the main focus was really Naomi’s journey growing up and becoming a young woman and finding her identity as a young Orthodox Jew and as a powerlifter,” she says.
“Being an Orthodox Jew really does play a part in my powerlifting,” Kutin tells JW magazine. “Number one, I really just acknowledge that my strength is a gift. I focus on that and appreciate that.”
And her faith tradition does make competitions tricky. She has to travel early to arrive before Shabbos, and often has to break from the competition’s official schedule. Sometimes that means lifting on Sunday with the male contestants, instead of the other women.
“When I go to competitions, obviously I’m not wearing a sign that says ‘I’m a Jew!’ on it,” Kutin jokes. “But I definitely don’t try to downplay it.”
She stands at the intersection of multiple niche communities. She’s an Orthodox Jew, a female athlete in a male-dominated sport, and a very young weightlifter at that. As Kutin shatters records, she also breaks stereotypes. She says that’s important.
“When people think of Orthodox Jews, they think of black hats and payot (sidelocks), and they don’t associate Orthodox Jewish women with doing anything like powerlifting. That seems crazy to most people,” Kutin says. “I show that I’m an Orthodox Jew. It’s okay, and I definitely do this.”
“I think that she represents a lot of women and girls in today’s society who might be struggling with their identity and going against the grain and going against societal stereotypes,” Auritt says. “I see it as being a very unique and personal and intimate story, but also extremely relevant to a broader audience of people that can relate to her and what she’s going through.”
In the documentary, Kutin says, “Supergirl is not about breaking records. Supergirl is about doing her best.”
Now 15, Kutin says, “I think that Supergirl is still about setting goals and working hard to accomplish them, whatever those goals may be.”
During filming, Cinematographer Carmen Delaney’s camera captured Kutin saying, “I love being strong. It’s empowering.” Today, she says being strong makes her feel like she can do anything, and gives her that same sense of confidence she felt when she watched jaws drop at her first competition.
“I felt like I could fly,” she says. “It felt like if I just set my mind to whatever I am doing, then I’m capable. The sky is the limit!”
The experience has instilled in Kutin the value of women’s empowerment.
“In society, women are told things they can do and things they can’t do—a lot of things they can’t do. Specifically in weightlifting, [women are told] they can’t do that and they’ll get bulky and they shouldn’t do that. They’re put into this box, and it’s important for women to feel like they can go after what they want and achieve what they’ve set their minds to. They don’t have to be put in this box. They can just break out and be their own person.”