“Supergirl” Naomi Kutin started defying expectations at the age of nine, when against all odds, she set a powerlifting world record, and beat women that were over 20 years older than her along the way. Filmmaker Jessie Auritt documents Naomi’s extraordinary coming-of-age story in Supergirl, which will make its World Premiere at the 2016 Hamptons International Film Festival. Hamptons.com spoke with Auritt about the pre-teen’s incredible journey, watching someone grow up in the spotlight, and more.
When did you first hear about Naomi Kutin?
JA: I came across an article on Naomi in January 2013 and was really fascinated – not just with this young girl, she had just broken a world record at 10-years-old, which is when the article was from. Not only was she beating woman who were three and four times her age – which was the first thing that really caught my attention, but the fact that she was Modern Orthodox really intrigued me. In the Orthodox tradition, typically women have traditional gender roles and dress codes and here she was competing in this male dominated sport. So, I was really intrigued with that and knew that there was a deeper story there and wanted to meet this young girl and find out what her life was like on a daily basis and really what laid ahead of her. So I reached out to the family, I guess in February 2013, and we discussed the filming and started shooting that spring.
When you approached the family about the documentary, what was their reaction?
JA: At first, I think that they were intrigued and excited, and also somewhat cautious because it is their young daughter. But, they had also been in the press quite a bit. She started powerlifting when she was eight-years-old and pretty much right off the bat after her first contest was in the local papers and then all the way up to some national television shows – so they were no strangers to the media and being in the public spotlight. After we discussed some things, they were pretty much on board right away and excited to start that process.
How long did filming take?
JA: We filmed over the course of about three years. From the time Naomi was 11, when we first started filming, up to when she was 14.
How did you decide the balance between Naomi’s personal life and lifting to include?
JA: On the outside, this young girl powerlifting is obviously very impressive, and that was what the media coverage had been about. While that was interesting to me, I was much more interested in digging deeper and seeing what was really going on here with Naomi and her family. Right off the bat, I wasn’t so much interested in making a film about powerlifting – it was more the context for the background of this young girl’s coming-of-age story. The powerlifting is definitely a huge part of the film, and the film leads up to a big contest – that’s obviously a huge part of her life. The film is really much more about Naomi and her personal development, her relationship with her parents and her brother, and her figuring out who she really is in this world. As a kid, being in the spotlight at such a young age, she’s been growing and figuring out who she is in the public spotlight – I was much more interested in what that was like for a young girl. Obviously adolescence is really hard and awkward for everyone, so to go through that in the public spotlight with Facebook and YouTube, you’re susceptible to the public’s criticism on a daily basis. While there’s a lot of powerlifting in the film, it’s really more about a young girl and her family trying to pursue her dreams, really like any other typical young girl.
Nowadays, social media can have a powerful impact on public figures, especially since Naomi is so young. Why did you decide to include some of the criticism she receives and her reactions to the negative feedback?
JA: I think that’s something that’s really real, not just for young people, but for everyone. I didn’t realize, until we were already into filming, that those types of comments existed. I found it shocking, personally. When I saw it, I was like, “How could someone say this about this young girl? They have no right to make this judgment.” A lot of these people, the Internet trolls, you really can’t listen to them. But, I didn’t want to shy away from it. It’s real life and it’s what she’s going through. I wanted to show, while, for the most part, she is positively received and people are supportive of her, there is a contingent of people that – there are haters out there and that’s a part of life. I think in this modern day and age, growing up is, not even if you’re a star athlete or child actor, just growing up in the age of social media is so much harder. And I was interested in exploring that deeper, with cyberbullying and the effects that it can have. What really impressed me about Naomi is while I was really shocked and appalled, she, for her age, really takes it in stride and still sees more of the positive side. I think it’s really an inspiration for other young people who might be dealing with cyberbullying to see that you don’t have to listen to haters; you can keep doing what you love to do and pursue your dreams.
Religion plays a big role in the film. Was the family at all hesitant to film at church, Naomi’s bat mitzvah or her school?
JA: No, not really. There were some restrictions, being that the family is Orthodox Jewish they observe the Sabbath, which is Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. We were absolutely not allowed to film during those 25 hours, which we respected. But, other than that, we were very well received in the family’s community and their synagogue and in their schools. Everyone was very supportive of Naomi and her family, and also the film and the documentary as a whole, and they’re very excited to see it because I think pretty much everyone in their local community had known about the film for the three plus years it’s been in the making. So, I think we have some people from the community actually coming up to the Hamptons for the world premiere and they’re very excited to see it.
The film follows Naomi during such an important time in a youth’s life. Were you impressed with Naomi’s growth as a person as filming progressed?
JA: Absolutely. I definitely was. I went through that time myself, but, I don’t have kids so I’ve never really experienced watching someone grow over the course of three years, and particularly during that time. That was one of the things initially that when I read about her I was excited to film over the course of those three years because I know how much someone changes and grows during that period. I was really interested in seeing how that would unfold. It was amazing to see firsthand and I think the film really captures that – from the beginning to the end you see not just a drastic physical transformation but really a transformation of her becoming a young woman, being more confident in herself and articulate and well spoken. It blew my mind to watch.
Supergirl will screen during the Hamptons International Film Festival on Sunday, October 9th at 2 p.m. at East Hampton UA (30 Main Street, East Hampton) and Monday, October 10th at 2:30 p.m. at East Hampton UA. Tickets are $15.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit hamptonsfilmfest.org.