Powerlifting champion Naomi Kutin wasn’t sure she was a feminist when Brooklyn director Jessie Auritt started filming her in 2012 for the documentary Supergirl. When Auritt shot the final scene in the Kutins’ Fair Lawn basement gym three years later, as Kutin approached her dead-lifting record of 363 pounds—almost four times her body weight—she still wasn’t sold on the idea.
But these days the 16-year-old junior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck embraces feminism: “I never really thought about it,” says Kutin. “But then people who saw screenings started talking about the girl-power aspect of it. I like that.”
Kutin started lifting as a way to spend more time with her father, a banker and weightlifting hobbyist, when she was eight. At age 10, she broke a world record, lifting 215 pounds above her 97-pound frame. She now stands 5 foot 5 and weighs in at 135 pounds.
If Kutin’s strength is impressive, so is her potential for crushing stereotypes. Auritt was compelled to tell Kutin’s story not only because she excels in a male-dominated sport, but also because of her family’s Orthodox Judaism. “From what I understood, Modern Orthodox Jewish families embrace very traditional gender roles,” says Auritt. The film, which follows Kutin through various teen rites of passage, proves there’s room to be a modern kid in an Orthodox family, even if it means packing kosher food for faraway competitions and securing permission to avoid competing on Sabbath Saturdays.
“I’m so used to living in my little bubble in Fair Lawn, where there are so many Jews,” says Kutin, “that I sometimes forget there’s a lot of people who still don’t understand what Judaism is and how many different ways there are of being Jewish.”
Supergirl began traveling the film-festival circuit a year ago; it premieres December 18 on the PBS series “Independent Lens.”