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World’s Strongest Teenager: Interview with the director of "Supergirl"

Neale Stokes, Librarian III, Digital Content Team,
Young girl squatting a heavy barbell at a competition

At first glance, Naomi Kutin looks like a typical American teenager—until you see her squat a barbell over twice her bodyweight. Supergirl, a new documentary, follows Naomi as she navigates the always-tricky terrain of growing up, while at the same time setting world powerlifting records and becoming a public figure. You can stream the film for free with your library card using Kanopy. We spoke with the film's director, Jessie Aurrit, about her experience making the film.

How did you find out about Naomi, and what made you want to pursue making a film about her?

I first found out about Naomi online and read some articles about her and watched some videos of her lifting. I was intrigued that an Orthodox Jewish girl, whose religion typically has traditional gender roles, was breaking stereotypes and participating in the male-dominated sport of powerlifting. I wanted to explore the dichotomy of her world and see how it changed over time as she got older. I thought that it was an interesting and unique subject that I hadn’t seen in a film before, so I decided to make SUPERGIRL.

Can you describe the production process (How did you shoot, what did your crew look like, etc.)?

We made the film completely independently on a very small budget. Our crew consisted of usually two or three people - myself, cinematographer, Carmen Delaney, and a sound recordist (or sometimes I would record sound myself). For powerlifting contests and other big events, like her graduation, we had two shooters, a sound recordist, a production assistant and myself. For most of the shoots, we used the Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III on handheld rigs so we could be very mobile. It was definitely what you would call “run and gun” filmmaking. For interviews, we would set up more composed shots with lights and a tripod.

Were there any challenges in working with a family versus working with adult subjects?

There’s definitely a lot more to take into consideration when working with a whole family opposed to adult subjects. Since Naomi and her brother were under 18, we had to get their parents permission before filming anything with them. One challenge about filming with young people is that they change more over time. Every time we would film with Naomi, she would look and sound older. This made it a bit challenging when editing the film because we had to make sure that we showed her consistently getting older, and it gave us less leeway to edit things out of chronological order.

What did you do to establish trust with Naomi and her family?

Right from the start, the Kutin family was pretty open to the idea of the documentary, but gaining their full trust was a process that took place over the course of three years of filming. We spent a lot of time with the Kutins without cameras, just hanging out and chatting about our personal lives. We even slept over at their house and had some meals together, which helped to build our relationship. Overall, I tried to be as transparent as possible, and make sure that Naomi and her family understood the filmmaking process and were on board with the story we were trying to tell.

This was your first feature film. What was the biggest difference between working on this film and your past work?

Prior to making SUPERGIRL, the longest film I made was 11 minutes, and the majority of my work has been under five minutes. Needless to say, there is a huge difference when working on a feature. I would say that the biggest difference is the amount of time and money spent making the film. To put it in perspective, I shot my 11-minute documentary in two days and I shot SUPERGIRL on average for about one day per month for three years.

Did anything surprise you while you were working on this film?

As Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “In feature films the director is God; in documentary films God is the director.” I found this to be very true in making SUPERGIRL. Without giving too much away, some things happened with Naomi’s health while we were making the film, that definitely took me by surprise and were out of my control. We had to adapt to what was happening and ended up including it in the film.

Do you have any general thoughts on the contemporary landscape for independent documentaries?

I think that it’s a really exciting time for independent documentaries. There are so many different avenues and streaming platforms for films to get distribution and be seen (like Kanopy!). In making documentaries accessible on these wide-reaching platforms, it’s changed how people view them (both literally and figuratively). In the past, documentary films have been seen as niche, boring, educational or elitist, whereas now, I think that they have become much more mainstream, and there’s a larger audience that is interested in seeing them.