‘Anything Else Would Have Been a Simplification’: Dimitris Athiridis’s 14 Hour Film About documenta 14

The Greek documentarian on trust, Adam Szymczyk and looking beyond the media scandal 

BY Chloe Stead AND Dimitris Athiridis in Film , Interviews | 16 FEB 24

Somewhere around the eight-hour mark in Dimitris Athiridis’s new documentary, Exergue – on documenta 14 (2024), Adam Szymczyk, artistic director of the quinquennial exhibition, is shown in a tense conversation with his head of communications, Henriette Gallus. ‘She’s doing something clever. She is tying herself to us,’ Gallus says to Szymczyk. ‘I don’t think it’s clever,’ he replies, ‘because she may sink with us.’ A year later, the person they are talking about, Annette Kulenkampff, stepped down from her role as documenta CEO after a deficit of EU€5.4 million was revealed in a media scandal that ultimately overshadowed Szymczyk’s edition of Germany’s most prestigious art event. Portrayed as a reckless interloper in the German press, Szymczyk was also relentlessly attacked for his part in the deficit, characterized as the result of his overambitious exhibition, which was split between two cities – Kassel and Athens – for the first time in the event’s history.

While no documentary can claim to tell the whole story of a particular event, Athiridis’s 14-hour film, which is currently playing at Berlin International Film Festival, is a gallant effort to do just that. Following Szymczyk from the summer of 2015 until the close of documenta 14 in the autumn of 2017, it’s an obsessive, addictively watchable character study of a man on a mission to do something that has never been done before. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the topic of money – the budget is a spectre that looms in every conversation between curators – Exergue – on documenta 14 is a much-needed reminder of the radical shift in thinking that Szymczyk’s edition proposed. Below, Athiridis expands on what we can learn from revisiting this story.

Portrait of Dimitris Athyridis. Courtesy: © Petros Toufexis
Portrait of Dimitris Athiridis. Courtesy: © Petros Toufexis

Chloe Stead What prompted you to make a film about documenta 14?

Dimitris Athiridis While documenta 14 was reported on extensively at the time, I think it was judged unfairly: you often need distance from an event to see things clearly. Many of the discussions about the artistic value of the exhibition were obscured by the media scandal that erupted before the end of the exhibition. My hope is that my film can give people the opportunity to revisit it.

CS What was your relationship to the event prior to filming?

DA I didn’t have much of a connection to the contemporary art world, and it was only by chance that I met Adam. In the summer of 2015, the artistic team of documenta came to my home town to visit the Thessaloniki Biennale of Contemporary Art, and one member of the team, Marina Fokidis, who is also from Thessaloniki, invited me to come to a taverna. I met Adam and we had a good rapport. In my films, I’m always interested in a character with a mission because it marks the beginning of a good story. I didn’t approach the film through the lens of documenta; I approached it through Adam and wanted to see what he would do.

Hendrik Folkerts, Adam Szymczyk Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, Katerina Tselou Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions.jpg
Dimitris Athiridis, exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions

CS You had an unparalleled level of access to Szymczyk and the team. How did you get him to agree to this?

DA Actually, it was really fast. I asked him: ‘Do you know what I do?’ And he answered: ‘Yes, Marina told me you make documentaries.’ So, I asked if he wanted me to follow him and he thought it was a good idea. It was a handshake deal; we didn’t make a contract or anything.

CS Why do you think he was so open to being recorded? Most people would be horrified at the prospect of having someone film them in their workplace.

DA Adam was always talking about documenta as a public institution, so bringing a filmmaker into the process was a way of addressing the issue of transparency. More than that, it shows the story from my perspective: I wasn’t commissioned by anyone.

exergue - on documenta 14, 2024, film still
Dimitris Athiridis, exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions

CS Are there certain techniques you use when filming to get people to trust you?

DA In observational documentary filmmaking, trust is part of the relationship you try to build. So, if you are asking me how I relate to people, it is with respect. I work alone without a crew. You can’t go into these small rooms with a crew because then it becomes something else. I spent a lot of time with the team and was kind of assimilated into it. Filmmaking is also an artistic process, which is something that these people understood.

CS Were there any restrictions placed on what you could record?

DA I always asked for permission to film and nobody ever asked me to leave. There were only a few artists who preferred to meet with the curators without cameras present. I could understand and respect that because it is also a very delicate moment for them.  

 exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions
Dimitris Athiridis, exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions

CS What percentage of footage ended up in the final film?

DA I had something like 800 hours of footage plus 200 hours of media and historical footage, which was edited into a 14-hour film.

CS Are you worried that people might think such a long film is a gimmick?

DA documenta is complex and multi-layered: it involves crowds of artists, curators and artworks that have to be understood within the context of a historical institution. We ended up with 14 chapters of narration that we felt were adequate to the subject. Anything else would have been a simplification. Audiences can easily watch long narratives if the storytelling is captivating.

 exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions.
Dimitris Athiridis, exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions

CS I want to come back to Szymczyk. Do you think he was unfairly treated?

DA In the end, the media scandal was a bit like a character assassination. They discredited documenta 14 and Adam and Annette Kulenkampff in a very effective way. I was reading an article in which someone was basically saying: ‘documenta 10 gave us this, documenta 11 gave us that and documenta 14 gave us a deficit.’ Is that really all documenta 14 contributed to the history of this event?

CS Your film is being released at a pivotal time for documenta as an institution. The last iteration, curated by ruangrupa, was mired in accusations of antisemitism, while the finding committee for documenta 16 resigned en masse last year stating grave concerns for the exhibition’s future. Can we learn something from your film that could apply to these situations?

DA It was a complete coincidence that the film came out now. I couldn’t have known that documenta was going to be in a crisis! But I think there is a lot that people can gain from seeing the process from the inside. There is a genealogy which makes the history of documenta 14 relevant to what is happening now. As the philosopher Giorgio Agamben said: ‘All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.’

exergue – on documenta 14 is showing at the 74th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival

Main image: Dimitris Athiridis, exergue – on documenta 14, 2024, film still. Courtesy: © Faliro House Productions

Chloe Stead is assistant editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany. 

Dimitris Athiridis is a documentary filmmaker and photographer from Thessaloniki, Greece. His films include T4 Trouble, the Self Admiration Society (2009), One Step Ahead (2012) and exergue – on documenta 14 (2024).