Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Fear of 13’

Storytelling as Catharsis


The Fear of 13
(UK, 96 min.)
Dir. David Sington

“True storytelling is the telling of life,” says former Death Row inmate Nick Yarris in the chilling film The Fear of 13. Yarris is a compelling speaker: expressive, authoritative, and convincing. His skill for storytelling and his flair from drama are good fortune for director David Sington, as The Fear of 13 rests entirely on the subject’s 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. It’s hard not to feel compelled by this story, but one wants to hear more.

Yarris’s 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 as being developed by Quakers who created tightly confined cells that deprived inmates of sound and sunlight. Yarris conveys that the prison’s “no speaking rule” offers 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, as he delivers his narrative with twitchy verbosity and markers of paranoia.

When the monologue reaches the act that pertains to the murder for which Yarris was wrongfully convicted, the film’s omnipresent narrator makes some surprising omissions in his tale. Few, if any, details of Yarris’s 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 while the murder trial loomed. The Fear of 13 doesn’t find the same engrossing courtroom bungle that, say, West of Memphis does with its fascinating account of the circus-like trial of the Memphis Three. The absence of information pertaining to Yarris’s trial is curious, especially since the DNA evidence becomes crucial to his exoneration.

The subject approaches the story of his conviction for the 1981 rape and murder of Linda Craig in a roundabout way. 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. The story doesn’t invite the audience to like Yarris; rather, he boldly frames the narrative by sounding like a career criminal who doesn’t stand accountable for his actions. This first impression comes in hand as the film progresses and The Fear of 13 asks the viewer if a person like this can find redemption.

The film finds its most powerful episode in the section of Yarris’s monologue that explains the point at which he lost all hope in the case. He recalls submitting a request to cease all appeals and expedite his execution. This chapter of The Fear of 13 chillingly and effectively conveys the hopelessness and despair of Yarris’s experience in isolation. Like many good stories, however, The Fear of 13 moves towards a happy ending as Yarris’ traumatic odyssey on Death Row gradually becomes brighter. The film features notable interludes in Yarris’s tale that illuminate how literature and stories brought him a kind of salvation in the prison. Yarris explains how a simple exercise in repeating and remembering new words let him taste a range of new experiences through literature. He tells of how books and pulp novels let inmates appreciate life through savouring a good story. By letting Yarris create his own true crime saga, The Fear of 13 brings the cathartic power of storytelling to life.

However, Yarris’s 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 a decade after Yarris’s exoneration, so one senses that the subject has reframed and reshaped memories by reliving this trauma repeatedly in his mind. The choice to give the subject full reign of the story feels intermittently manipulative as gaps in the narrative go unquestioned. (The opening credits indicate that independent researchers have verified all of Yarris’s testimony.)

Sington adds to Yarris’s story by accentuating elements of his narrative in various ways. He uses sound effects, like gunshots, when the speaker notes the retort of a pistol, and these additions help shake the viewer and lend sympathy towards the subject. Sington uses visual cues such as cutaways to shots of objects and stand-ins for figures from Yarris’s story. These intercuts make the single-interview format a bit more dynamic, but they also betray the absence of other figures from the story—which is perfectly exemplified when a glass of fizzy Coca Cola gets a lengthy close-up.

The simplicity of the film, however, lets Yarris’s experience convey the effect that the prison system has on an individual. It’s a powerful account and the simple direction respects the subject’s journey.
Yarris is a born storyteller and his narrative hits every emotional tenor about the hell one endures in isolation—doubly so when one serves for a wrongful conviction. The film doesn’t make a direct case against the death penalty or confinement, nor does it preach about a broken legal system, but it doesn’t need to do so because it lets a victim relate the experience in his own words.

The Fear of 13 screened at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Feb. 3 and 4 as part of the Doc Soup series.