The Fear of 13

 

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In this documentary a man accused of murder tells his story and reveals events as startling as any fiction.


David Sington, the director here, already has one impressive documentary to his credit: In the Shadow of the Moon made in 2007. However, what makes The Fear of 13 memorable is not the way in which it has been presented but the story it tells. The narrative is so astounding – the kind of tale that would be dismissed as unbelievable if presented as fiction – that watching this film is a compelling experience: any questions that arise and any criticisms that need to be made are secondary to that.

 

At the start it sounds like a standard prison tale as Nicholas Yarris, somebody who in his youth stole cars for joy rides, drunk heavily and was on drugs by the age of seventeen, faces the camera to tell his story with remarkable eloquence. He is introduced to us as a prisoner on Death Row in Pennsylvania found guilty of a murder which he denies committing – regardless of which, failure to make a successful appeal will lead him eventually to make a plea to be executed.

 

With an oddly chosen title even though that particular phobia is mentioned in passing, The Fear of 13 is essentially a monologue by Yarris with intercut illustrations inserted from time to time. If Burt Lancaster’s Birdman of Alcatraz in the film of that title showed us a prisoner becoming an expert ornithologist, Yarris’s way with words is explained by the fact that his extensive reading in jail amounted to self-education. Even so, some have criticised his dramatic delivery and I’ve even heard it suggested that the end credit referring to an actor playing adult Nicholas Yarris means that, far from being confined to flashbacks, he is standing in for Yarris and delivering his words to camera. That seems unlikely, but Sington does indulge slow motion shots and makes ill-judged attempts to inject a sense of drama (at one point an intercut coffee cup falls and breaks).

  

 Fear of 13

   

But what counts is that The Fear of 13, starting out as an involving account of prison life, becomes much more than that: a narrative covering matters not even hinted at here since the developments in Yarris’s tale are most telling if one is not prepared for them. One casts aside any doubts or reservations because the story that unfolds grips one throughout and makes for a great tale.  

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Nicholas Yarris.


Dir David Sington, Pro Christopher Riley, Ph Clive North and Nickolas Rossi, Ed Robert Sternberg, David Fairhead and Horacio Queiro, Art Dir Rosalind Boulton, Music Philip Sheppard.


Ten Mountain Capital/Thirty Tigers/BBC/DOX-Dogwoof.
95 mins. UK. 2015. Rel: 13 November 2015. Cert. 15.