DIR: David Sington • WRI: Corin Hardy, Felipe Marino • PRO: Christopher Riley, Haroula Rose, David Sington • DOP: Clive North, Nickolas Dylan Rossi • MUS: Philip Sheppard • CAST: Sammy Silverwatch, Nick Yarris
Over the past few years quite a number of films have emerged questioning the injustices of the American incarceration system such as West of Memphis and The House I Live In. The Fear of 13 belongs to this category of documentary with one essential difference, in this film, rather than using the traditional range of testimonies involved in such documentary films, this film allows this victim of institutional injustice free reign to tell his story. The story rather than the injustice is put on centre stage. Sitting in an empty cell, Nick Yarris’ voice echoes, the acoustics replicating an actor on stage as the death row prisoner’s charisma relays the story of how he once sought to fast forward his execution despite always maintaining his innocence.
Director John Sington’s film opens up to Yarris lamenting the silence of solitary confinement that he endured on first arriving on death row. That was a quaker prison, he states, and the warden doesn’t permit speaking. He was, as he makes clear, a man silenced.
Essentially a monologue, Sington embellishes Yarris’ performance of his monologue with a range of sound effects that serve to heighten the already engaging performance. By keeping Yarris’s alleged crimes on the long focus, Sington’s film can instead delve into the character of Yarris and his own journey rather than a film primarily focused on injustice. Yarris peppers his monologue with anecdotes, from the cultural life within prisons, to Yarris’ own youth and his own brief and accidental escape from prison.
Despite the cruelty at times of life in the prison, it is the kind act of one prison guard to introduce the prisoner to world of books that has the most significant effect on his life. With passion, Yarris explains how he was overcome by an obsession with learning, reciting words, writing them out ten times, putting them into sentences, learning words like phantasmagoria and triskaidekaphobia (thus the name of the film) and in the process he came to understand and know his self. Never was he happier, he states, than in death row surrounded by books and with each book learning a little bit more about himself.
Singeton employs beautiful impressionistic cinematography that disperse the constant close up on Yarris and allow the film to breathe. Geometrical patterns of incarceration systems, sights and sounds of Yarris’s youth, all are rendered in the cinematography to embellish the voice of the charismatic narrator. The trial, we learn, that ended up sentencing the young man to death was based on the preposterous nature of circumstantial evidence and also the young man’s own blunder. A young woman named Linda May was raped and murdered. Despite being 20km away from the scene of the crime scene, Yarris was charged for her murder.
The man’s story is entertaining, he is at times, a murder accused, a chancer, a vagrant, a thief, a drug addict, a prisoner, an escaped convict, innocent, guilty, a lover, but as his story makes progressively clearer, a victim. Never, however, does he play this role. He is the storyteller, this is his story and there seems to be a certain amount of pride at being given the opportunity to tell his story after spending so many years on Death Row reading and being enchanted by other people’s stories. That the man’s joy remains, despite his silencing by the monolithic slowness of the American Justice system at clearing an innocent man’s name, shows the redemptive quality of literature as much as the man’s own will to life.
As he states of what he finds appealing in the best stories: “the true story is the telling of life.”
The Fear of 13 is released 13th November 2015