“THE FEAR OF 13”
A Psychological Thriller
David Sington’s “The Fear of 13” is part confessional and part performance, a haunting psychological thriller and a daring experiment in storytelling. Nick is a death row inmate who petitions the court to be executed. As he goes on to tell his story, it becomes clear that nothing is quite what it seems. Nick tells his tale with all the twists and turns of classic crime drama, with a final shocking twist that casts everything in a new light.
Jailbird Nick Yarris shares how a petty thief and meth user became a convicted murderer on Death Row in Pennsylvania. Yarris is such a good storyteller, and pulls us in with his long, clear, articulate sentences of his time before and after his conviction, and how for many long years he tried to have his conviction for murder overturned. We are reminded of how slowly the wheels of justice turn when the authorities are convinced they already have the right guy. We learn of Yarris’ setbacks, minor triumphs, beatings, the draconian prison system, his illnesses, his time on the run, his marriage to a prison visitor and his campaign for his own retrial. There is little rancor and/or.
The title refers to triskaidekaphobia, the fear of the number 13 and this is just one of the many words Yarris learned while reading thousands of books during his 20-year stay on Death Row in a Pennsylvania prison. Yarris is the film’s sole subject and narrates the feature to camera throughout. He is eloquent and spends the duration of the film recounting the past twenty years of his life. We never know whether he is being interviewed or speaking directly to the camera. with it very difficult to tell whether he’s speaking to an interviewer, or directly down the lens; his eyes constantly darting and his body physically reenacting the events leading up to and since his conviction of rape, abduction and murder.
Yarris dominates this documentary and his passion, emotion and constant protesting of his innocence, his maintenance of hope and then his eventual request of asking the state’s governor to have him executed immediately, commands the screen. “The Fear Of 13” is a brilliant example of unique documentary filmmaking that is simple in its approach and wonderful in its execution.
Yarris tells us that “True storytelling is the telling of life,” says former Death Row inmate Nick Yarris and the film rests entirely on his testimony. The simplicity of the film is as frustrating as it is remarkable since the film essentially offers a 90-minute monologue in which the former Death Row inmate recounts his 23-year experience in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Yarris’ story offers a sobering account of a troubled man. He talks directly into the camera about his life of petty crime (mostly auto theft) and substance abuse that led to a string of run-ins with the law. His narrative sets the mood by conveying the eerie silence of the Pennsylvania prison, which he describes by saying that the prison was developed by Quakers who created tightly confined cells that deprived inmates of sound and sunlight. Yarris says the prison’s “no speaking rule” has the deadliest effect on jailbirds, as it accentuates isolation and leaves every prisoner alone with his or her thoughts. The years of incarceration and isolation show their toll on Yarris and we sense his paranoia about speaking out. When he reaches the act that pertains to the murder for which Yarris was wrongfully convicted, he shares some surprising omissions in his tale. Few, if any, details of Yarris’ defense appear in his story. His testimony tells more about a trial that preceded the murder case and he explains how he was acquitted of a string of charges at the same time that the murder trial loomed. The absence of information pertaining to Yarris’ trial is curious, especially since the DNA evidence becomes crucial to his exoneration.
Yarris starts his tale with a tangential account about an escape from his guards during a routine transfer. He talks about running away during one cold night and evading the police by stealing a car and other peoples’ belongings, which he pawned for quick cash. He sounds like a career criminal who is not accountable for his actions.
The most powerful episode is Yarris explaining when he lost all hope in the case. He recalls submitting a request to cease all appeals and expedite his execution. This relates the hopelessness and despair of Yarris’ experience in isolation. We hear him explain how literature and stories brought him a kind of salvation in the prison and how a simple exercise in repeating and remembering new words led him to a range of new experiences through literature. However, Yarris’ account never sounds like a response to a question, and one never hears the filmmaker pose a query or interject. The dramatic delivery of the story also comes ten years after his exoneration, so we sense that the subject has reframed and reshaped memories by reliving this trauma repeatedly in his mind. The simplicity of the film lets Yarris’ experience show the effect that the prison system has on an individual. It’s a powerful account and the simple direction respects the subject’s journey.