“Let’s go, Supergirl!”
By Joanne Pilgrim
When Jessie Auritt, a documentary filmmaker, heard about Naomi Kutin, an Orthodox Jewish girl from New Jersey who broke a world record in powerlifting at age nine, she was immediately interested.
“What really intrigued me was that she was coming from this traditional background, but yet she was competing in this very male-dominated sport,” Ms. Auritt, who spent three years filming Naomi and her family for her film, “Supergirl,” said in a recent interview.
The film premiered in October at the Hamptons International Film Festival in East Hampton, N.Y., and was shown at the Doc NYC festival in Manhattan in November; future screenings are planned at other festivals and in community and other settings.
Naomi was 11 when Ms. Auritt and crew began filming, and 14 when they finished; she’s now a 15-year-old student in an all-girls Jewish high school .
“At a really young age, she really claims her identity as a young Orthodox girl, and as ‘Supergirl,’ ” Ms. Auritt says.
“When I’m not lifting, I’m more shy….” Naomi says at the start of the film, describing her change in attitude as she dons her workout clothes.
The camera closes in on her determined grunts and groans as she lifts heavy barbells, her father –a weightlifter himself, who is also her coach – alongside, and her mother, sitting on the stairs leading to a basement weight room egging her on. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she chants. “Let’s go, Supergirl,” her mother cheers at another point.
Besides the unusual challenges faced by a 97-pound competitor in a sport measured largely by brute strength, we witness Naomi having to cope with a nasty online backlash and critical comments by people who insist that, as a girl, she shouldn’t be powerlifting, or that her father – and coach – must wish that she was a boy. “I think those comments … I just kind of brush them off,” Naomi said. “I just think it’s crazy that people think that way”.
“I’m glad that she has that tool to say those opinions don’t matter,” her mother says. “And to say, you have to focus on who you are. I think she’s a really good role model that way.”
“All I can say is I’m a tough little girl,” Naomi concludes in the film. “You really see Naomi become self-empowered, and take ownership of her identity,” said Ms. Auritt of “Supergirl.” “Even in the face of criticism… she still holds strong to who she is, and even digs deeper.”
But, Naomi says on camera, “If I stopped powerlifting, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. If I can’t lift, I’m scared that I can’t be Supergirl. I will take a migraine if it means power lifting.”
Her weightlifting achievements make her feel unique, she says. But guiding her as well, she says, is her relationship with God, and the celebration of her Bat Mitzvah is an important milestone for her.
The film captured not just the young girl maturing, Ms. Auritt said, “but also her physical transformation.” A slight thing, she gains six inches over the course of the film, but watches her weight so she can continue to compete in the lower weight class in which she set records.
Waking in the predawn dark with her family to depart for an important competition one day, Naomi weighs in at 98 pounds, and has a day and a half to drop a pound in order to compete in her weight class. But, her mother tells her, “You’re not starving yourself, because that’s not healthy.”
“We’re just a normal family. Naomi does extraordinary things, but we’re just an ordinary family,” Neshama Kutin says. Before a competition, there they are observing Shabbat in their hotel room; at other points, we see mom and daughter shopping for a pretty Bat Mitzvah dress, or Naomi and her father squabbling lightly over what to say on an Instagram post.
As Orthodox Jews, Ms. Kutin says her daughter’s weightlifting “might be controversial; we might be shunned. But I want her to be able to do things she’s remarkable at.” “I feel like we have to give them the empowerment to pursue the things they really love.” Girls get “a lot of messages,” she said, about what is not considered possible for them to do.
“I will do anything to help my children, and protect them,” she says. But as they grow up, she says, her job is to teach them how to be strong and be their own persons.
The final competition depicted in the film was both a disappointment and an achievement for Naomi. While she fails to set a new world record she lifts more weight than she has ever hoisted – almost three times her body weight. The cameras follow Naomi and her mom into the ladies’ room as she wipes tears from her face with a paper towel. Neshama tells her disappointed daughter to look at it another way. “How many kids in the world your age are doing this?” she says to Naomi.
Back in the gym, several muscled weightlifters congratulate Naomi on her achievement. One gives her his own trophy. “You earned it,” the massive man tells her. As she grows older, Naomi reaches 105 pounds, which requires her to compete in a weight class in which it’s not so easy to break world records.
“Supergirl’s not about breaking records, Supergirl’s about doing her best,” she says in the film. “I love being strong; it’s empowering. I like both parts of me – Naomi, and Supergirl. But in the end, they’re all just me.”
Speaking recently, Naomi declined to pinpoint specific goals for her future. She tries to “live in the moment,” she said, but wants to “try to live my life to the fullest, and reach my potential.”
For information on future screenings, visit Supergirl’s website: www.supergirldoc.com