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doc talk | Peter Keough

Documentaries explore names, weights, and volumes

Richard Tilkin sought out and interviewed more than 30 individuals with distinctive names for his “The Strange Name Movie.”Richard Tilkin

As quoted in “Weiner” (2016), the documentary about self-destructive Congressman Anthony Weiner, Marshall McLuhan said, “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” 

The subjects in local filmmaker Richard Tilkin’s documentary “The Strange Name Movie” might beg to differ. Tilkin sought out and interviewed more than 30 individuals with such distinctive names as Howard Schmuck, Al Dente, Jeanine Cobbledick, Al Capone, three generations of Donald Ducks, and Donald Trump (not that one) to find out how they handle their handles. 

Surprisingly well, it turns out. Concludes Tilkin, “Everyone is self-conscious about something. The film speaks to anyone who isn’t blessed with bullet-proof self-confidence, a flawless physical appearance, or the perfect name.”

“The Strange Name Movie” can be seen on many cable and digital platforms including Vimeo On Demand, Amazon, and iTunes.

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Pressing engagement

A unique and inspiring example of female empowerment is the subject of Jessie Auritt’s documentary “Supergirl.”

Naomi Kutin is an Orthodox Jewish girl from New Jersey who took up the sport of powerlifting when she was 8. By the age of 10 she was breaking records — powerlifting 215 pounds when she weighed only 97 pounds herself. Her fame spread quickly through the media and she earned the nickname “Supergirl.”


Auritt spent three years covering Kutin’s story, following her from the age of 11 as she faced a range of challenges shared by many young people — peer pressure, cyberbullying — complicated by the mixed blessings of fame, the rigors of her sport, and devotion to her faith. A coming-of-age story about a driven, talented athlete, “Supergirl” is also a story about a family. Naomi is lucky to have a strong support system — her father is a powerlifter as well, and her younger brother has taken up the sport.

“Supergirl” can be seen Monday at 10 p.m. on “Independent Lens.” It will be available for online viewing on the PBS site on Tuesday.

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Book case

Now that “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” has made it onto the Academy’s 2017 documentary short list, maybe it will be the first of Frederick Wiseman’s 42 nonfiction films to win an Oscar, or at least a nomination. 

The 197-minute film covers the vast cultural institution from the magnificent marble halls of the main library, with its signature lion sculptures, to a small Harlem branch where the staff discusses better ways to involve the community. Its scope is, as it were, encyclopedic, including such diverse elements as free public talks with Richard Dawkins, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello; outreach programs teaching school kids how to read and do math; a recording session for an audio book of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”; and the inevitable board meetings where the discussions range from debates about finances to a policy about dealing with homeless people to more debates about finances.


“Ex Libris” is a dozen different Wiseman films wrapped into one, focused on the theme of how institutions and communities struggle to elevate the spirit, serve the common good, and bring people together.

“Ex Libris: The New York Public Library” screens Friday at 6 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre.

Peter Keough can be reached at