Director: David Sington
Cast: Nick Yarris
Running Time: 90 minutes
Release Date: November 13th
Basic storytelling boils like a kettle. Interesting storytelling rolls like Russian roulette and fortunately, David Sington’s documentary, The Fear of 13, which blends the Errol Morris method of interviewing, with the stylised recreations of Bart Layton, or Andrew Jarecki, falls into the latter category.
The premise is simple: Nick Yarris, a Pennsylvanian death row inmate of twenty-three years, falsely accused of murdering a woman, recounts his tumultuous life of appeals, escapes and enlightenment. Yet, and stemming from his post-traumatic stress disorder, the lengthy monologue he delivers will grip viewers from the outset due to the sheer volatility of his manner, which in turn, heightens the thrill of his backstory.
The outcome we know. What happened in between is the important part, and in those years, there is a story, laden with enough twists to make you forget this is real life.
Setting an apt tone during the cold opening, wherein Yarris remarks on the chaotic effect incarceration wrought on his perception of time, this extended aphorism foreshadows the erratic nature of the things to come. You will not be watching a kettle gradually boil. Instead, the steam shoots out in the third minute as opposed the third act. His voice quivers, and bursts, upon describing the threatening silence of a prison cell, but then moments later, he is calm again, and remains so until either another emotion, or event causes him to erupt, often without a second’s notice.
Gifted at immersing the viewer in his world, Yarris’ ability to narrate is enhanced furthermore by his surprisingly impartial manner, reminiscent of Margritte Schiller’s prison autobiography: Remembering the Armed Struggle. Like her, he does not seek sympathy, nor does he strive to create heroes, or villains. Each person who passes through his life, he represents with a stunning range of colours. This willingness to forgo black and white simplicity hence breathes life into an institution. Criminals are not criminals. They have their quirks, and tragedies. Figures of authority, and within that category, the frighteningly authoritarian characters are not without humanity. Even the cells, though chilling, he decorates here with art and soulfulness.
Sentimental as it may sound, the fact is that, his disastrous prison years make this vital to maintain his present state of well-being. After enduring such harsh conditions, designed to break a person, Yarris’ purpose is to reassemble this broken period and retrieve its human core, something he could easily have lost.
In piecing together, from the rubble, a new man, the overall story, which emerges is about the hunt to seize control of one’s life. Starting out as a juvenile delinquent, who accidentally made himself the lead suspect in a murder trial, his life was one serendipitous catastrophe after another, until it hit a point when the only hands not determining his life were that of his own. It was only then, that he decided to fight and seize control.
A dark, but beautiful adventure, The Fear of 13 is as gritty as it is uplifting, even life affirming at times. However, and considering this is about life on death row, while there are a handful of positive lessons to extract from the bigger picture, there are a far greater number of shocks, which might not cause viewers distress, but may certainly leave a strong dose of cynicism lingering in your system during the days to follow.