‘Supergirl’: What if Your Documentary Isn’t Political?
Director Jessie Auritt’s Slamdance film about the strongest girl in the world takes a personal approach.
In a funding and programming moment that places major emphasis on "social issue" documentaries, what happens when you want to shoot a story about an everyday person? Could your effort actually be as compelling, or even more so, to attract audiences and move the needle on social issues than an explicitly political film that hits viewers over the head with its message? That’s what Director Jessie Auritt set out to discover with her first feature documentary, Supergirl.
But her subject isn't just anyone. It's the champion weightlifter Naomi Kutin, who began breaking international squat records at only nine years old. She also happens to be an Orthodox Jew. Watching the petite Kutin prepare for her bat mitzvah while competing at weightlifting events alongside men twenty times her size is entertaining and endearing, but it also gives us pause to think about what it means to be a strong girl in today's political and social climate.
No Film School spoke with Auritt before the film's Slamdance appearance about shooting an intimate character study, her festival strategy, and what she wishes she had known before embarking upon three years of production.
"It's the good, and the bad, and the ugly. That's what makes a really compelling film."
NFS: The filming of ‘Supergirl’ felt very personal, as if you were living in their house. What was your process there?
Jessie Auritt: The whole filming took place over about the course of three years, and on average, we would go film with them about once a month. When we started filming Naomi was 11 years old. It was very intimate watching her grow up from the age of 11 to 14 because it's such a transformational period.
We obviously went and met with the family first, and over time we were able to build this relationship and trust where we even joke about now that we've become family in a sense. They live in northern New Jersey. I'm based in Brooklyn, so it was a 45-minute drive out there. For various shoots, we would stay over at their house when they would have to wake up really early for a powerlifting contest. We would travel with them to contests and sometimes spend multiple days at a time or just come to their house and just film little moments with them.
That age is such a tender age where, for me, I know I would've never wanted a documentary film crew following me around. They were very gracious and open in letting us into their lives for that, and to capture that moment in time for them.
NFS: How did you convince them to give you that kind of access?
Auritt: For a documentary, when you're capturing real life, obviously things develop that we could never have predicted. It was an evolving process. We started out just filming pretty basic things: her powerlifting contest, [Naomi] at school. Then when more sensitive things came up, we had to sit down and have a conversation with them.
Understandably, I think, parents are instinctively protective of their kids. When things with Naomi's health came up and we wanted to film in the doctor's appointments with them, for example, at first they were pretty guarded. At that point, we had been filming for over a year, so we had built that trust. We just tried to be as a transparent as possible and said, "Look, for this film, we're trying to capture life as it happens and that is not just the highlights. It's the good, and the bad, and the ugly. That's what makes a really compelling film."
NFS: Were there times when you felt like maybe you were filming something too personal? If so, how did you deal with that internally?
Auritt: Yeah, it's a fine line for any documentary filmmaker. I sort of found myself battling this line of myself as the director wanting to capture everything, get the best shot. Then also myself as just a compassionate human being that has this sensitivity and awareness for this young girl and not wanting to overstep that line.
There were definitely times if Naomi and her family were uncomfortable, if they communicated that to us and said, "This is actually something we would rather have you not there," we would respect that and not push it. There were certainly things that we did not film that we're just like, "Okay, this is something that they need to have with their own private time dealing with this matter."
I think overall we were still able to capture the essence of what was going on in those three years that we filmed her. There's no way you can capture everything. I think you have to pick and choose the most important things that are going to really help convey the story you want to tell.
"We were a really small crew. The most we would ever have was two cameras and a sound person."
NFS: What did you shoot with, and what did you find were its pros and cons?
Auritt: We shot mostly all on the 5D Mark II and Mark III. We shot on that camera primarily because cinematographer, Carmen Delaney, owned that camera. We started out with no budget at all. No fundraising. It was self-funded at the beginning, and then later on we got some grants and then did the Kickstarter to finish the film. We were all working for free. I got people to work on really low rates or deferred bases. We were just making the film with whatever we could get our hands on. Then later, I bought my own 5D so I could shoot second camera.
The beginning of 2013 was when we started shooting. Even by then, there were already new cameras coming out. I think the 5D is a great camera. The cameras keep improving so I don't even know how much people are shooting on the 5D anymore because I feel like the technology's already so past that.
I think the camera shoots beautifully. In some ways, it was great because it's super small and lightweight. When we would go to this powerlifting contest, we were literally running down this aisle following Naomi. We were a really small crew. The most we would ever have was two cameras and a sound person. Maybe on a couple shoots, I got a PA to help. It was nice to be able to be small and discreet and go unnoticed without making a big deal in crowded situations.
On the other side, having to run separate sound was always an ordeal. I think if I were to do another feature film, I would not shoot on that camera. I mean, hopefully I would do some fundraising ahead of time and have a budget. Overall, though, I'm really happy with the aesthetic that the film came out with, and it holds up on the big screen, too.
NFS: What if, like yours, a film does not explicitly address a political or social issue? What does that mean for someone trying to get funding and trying to market the film?
Auritt: I think that's a really good question. We struggled with the fundraising process because so many of the grants are geared toward social issue films.
Of course, we applied to all those grants and we tried to horn the film to fit their qualifications to try to get as much funding as possible, but it didn't work because it isn't a direct social issue film. However, the film deals with a lot of really relevant social issues, which was frustrating in a way for us.
We were able to get some funding through other grants that were not directly focused on social issue films and then Kickstarter. Through the Kickstarter [campaign], we partnered with some organizations to help get the word out, a lot of women's organizations, youth empowerment organizations, Jewish organizations. We've had a lot of interest in having community screenings for those groups.
NFS: So maybe your film isn't explicitly social issue, but there's still a strategy in reaching out to affiliate communities for partnerships and help.
Auritt: Absolutely. [What] I've been realizing with the film is that it almost has these implicit social issues that are behind the hook of a young, Jewish girl doing this male-dominated sport. That just grabs people's attention and they're curious to see how this young girl is able lift three times her body weight and able to beat women more than three times her age.
It's interesting because there are lot of powerlifters in those "flyover states" in middle America, places that are conservative and probably don't watch a lot of documentaries and social issue films. Just from our social media, we can see who our followers are. We have a lot of powerlifters who are following the film.
It's exciting because I'm hoping that when the film has a larger distribution down the road via broadcast and VOD, we can reach those communities and those markets of people that probably don't watch [as many documentaries]. If you said, “This is a female empowerment documentary about breaking stereotypes,” they would never watch it. If you tell it as about this young girl doing feats in powerlifting, they're like, "Oh, cool. I'm into that. I've competed at that competition where she is."
If it can move the needle just a tiny amount about women and girls having equal opportunities, I feel like that's accomplishing something that maybe a lot of those more overt social issue films aren't able to accomplish because they're not reaching those audiences.
"I just jumped in head first without fully knowing what I was getting into and not being fully prepared. It worked out."
NFS: You're playing at Slamdance in the middle of your festival run. What's the circuit been like and what was your decision-making around it?
Auritt: The film premiered at the Hamptons in October and then was at DOC NYC in November and two other festivals. It's actually only been at four festivals so far. We have a lot more coming up that are already lined up for this spring, which I think will sort of take off. We're going to hopefully continue to have the film on the circuit for about a year or so until next fall. That’s our goal so we can hit all the regional festivals that we didn't apply to last year because we were waiting for the film to premiere.
Obviously, you don't know when your film is going to premiere. We have our planning committee and had to roll with what was the best fit for the film and where it got in. I'm really excited to be going to Slamdance. I had a short film play there a few years back and just had a great experience.
Most of the films at Slamdance are premieres, but there's so much hustle and bustle in Park City with trying to fight for publicity, or sales, and that sort of thing. It's nice that we've had a little bit of time to already prepare for that. We have our sales team, we're already in talks with distributors so it's not as anxiety-provoking going into it.
NFS: This your first feature, so what do you know now that you wish you had known at the beginning?
Auritt: So many things. It's actually perfect that we're doing this interview for No Film School because I did not go to film school. Making this film has been my film school in so many ways. I made an independent short before Supergirl. This was a whole other beast of a thing.
When we started, I didn't have a treatment, I didn't know what a budget was, I only knew certain things. I really learned as we were going. I definitely got on No Film School searching like, "Sample budgets," or, "How to write a treatment," or how to whatever, which was really helpful. We were also part of the IFP Film Labs—they took us under their wing and we learned a ton there.
“ I made an independent short before Supergirl. This was a whole other beast of a thing. "
I think the main thing I learned is that overall experience of just knowing how much time and effort actually goes into the process of making a feature. To be totally honest, if I had known what would go into it, I don't know if I would've had the motivation to just do it on my own in the way that I did. I know since then I'm sort of glad I had naiveté going into it.
What I would do differently is I would really focus on first, getting a really solid sample and treatment, and then trying to do fundraising from the beginning and trying to get more partners and more support and maybe a really experienced producer on board from the very get-go. I found, from talking to people, how much having that from the beginning helps propel the film and get it noticed.
Even though I think I went about it in a totally roundabout and backwards way in some ways, which I think a lot of first-time filmmakers do, I just jumped in head first without fully knowing what I was getting into and not being fully prepared. It worked out.
NFS: Right, and you almost have to, like you said. If you knew how much it would take, you might not have done it.
Auritt: For sure. I'm excited now, knowing what I do know and what I've learned, to make a second feature. I mean, not that it will be easy because everyone I've talked to has made more than one feature. No one says it's a walk in the park, but I think just having the knowledge and being prepared will make such a difference in having those pre-existing contexts that I have now will hopefully go a long way in getting a second feature made.