'The Fear of 13': CPH:DOX Review

Courtesy of Dogwoof Pictures
Dead man, talking?

Nick Yarris recounts his death-row struggles in David Sington's documentary, winner of the Audience Award at the Danish festival.

A death row record of compelling directness, The Fear of 13 depends heavily but successfully on the ample charisma of its monologue-spouting sole protagonist. Premiering in the main competition at Copenhagen's documentary-oriented CPH:DOX, this above-average example of the burgeoning miscarriage-of-justice subgenre took the audience award ahead of some potent rivals, a prize which augurs promisingly for its festival and commercial prospects.

A scattering of big-city engagements in the UK and Ireland over December are prelude to arthouse expansion in early January, and it's easy to envisage this gimmicky-on-paper enterprise part Executioner's Song, part Shawshank / Green Mile, part El Sicario Room 164 emerging as a mid-level word-of-mouth success. Further afield, it's worth a spin in Stateside theaters although the film is a low-budget British production from non-fiction veteran David Sington, subject/scriptwriter Nick Yarris is American, and The Fear of 13 certainly contributes to the ongoing debate about capital punishment in the USA.

Sington is best known for 2007's In the Shadow of the Moon, in which surviving Apollo-program astronauts looked back on their outer-space adventures, interspersed with archive footage. Here Sington and his editors Robert Sternberg and David Fairhead instead illustrate Yarris's articulate testimony by means of brief atmospheric shots, sometimes quite prosaic in their depiction of what's being discussed, sometimes more enigmatic — as in a repeated image of a young boy running through a forest — and sometimes deploying slo-mo and/or shallow-focus for dramatic effect.

Such touches, taken in conjunction with Philip Sheppard's ominous score, make it clear that Sington and company are making a documentary which aspires to the mood and tone of mainstream Hollywood thrillers (a fiction-feature version of the material is also reportedly in the works). Their borrowings serve to distract us from the fact that what we're watching is at heart more of a theatrical experience than a cinematic one. Previously recounted in literary form in 2008's Seven Days To Live, Yarris's yarn of prolonged incarceration — he received the death-sentence in 1983 for rape and murder — and ultimate, against-all-odds redemption is by turns harrowing, amusing
, illuminating, anger-rousing (the brutal Pennsylvania penal system of the 1980s is bluntly indicted) and finally uplifting.

But there's more here than issued-based, behind-the-headlines content. What Yarris magnetically delivers, seated throughout, is very much — and very consciously — a performance, drawing from his own self-avowed love of storytelling to sock over decades of tumultuous experience in an economic, non-chronological series of anecdotal, discrete chapters. A self-taught devourer of knowledge, Yarris delights in obscure terminology — the film's attention-grabbingly odd title is a non-sequitur reference to one of the first "big" words he commits to memory, triskaidekaphobia.

If anything Yarris's raconteurish loquacity is occasionally a distraction — he's so smooth, so practised and expert in his rhetorical, manipulative display (there's a rug-pulling, show-stopping "twist" around the 40 minute mark) that some viewers may mistake him for an actor reading the real Yarris's lines; there's a slight audition-piece air to his delivery, especially in the early stages, and later a couple of minor flubs are left in to further a sense of conversational authenticity.

It would perhaps have been helpful if Sington had made it more explicit that the Yarris we see on screen is very much the real deal.
But this ambiguity, whether intentional or not, at least has one side-benefit: kept-in-the-dark viewers can experience a measure of queasy suspense about our (anti-?) hero's eventual fate — if this is some talented thespian, perhaps the real Yarris did, after all, keep his state-enforced appointment with the grim reaper...


Production companies: DOX Productions
Director: David Sington
Screenwriter: Nick Yarris
Producers: Christopher Riley, David Sington
Executive producers: Arthur S. DeMoulas, David Macias, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend
Cinematographer: Clive North
Editors: Robert Sternberg, David Fairhead
Composer: Philip Sheppard
Sales: Dogwoof, London
No Rating, 95 minutes

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