Floating teasingly and compellingly between true crime documentary and thriller, “The Fear of 13” is a good fit for the CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen, which encourages films that explore the grey areas between fiction and documentary, and where it screens in competition Saturday ahead of its showing this month at DOC NYC.
The film wastes no time in setting us on the back foot. A caption tells us that after 20 years on Death Row, Nick Yarris has requested his own execution.Yet here he is, clean-shaven, dapper in a crisply-ironed shirt, speaking to the camera – not from a cell, but in one of those artfully neutral documentary spaces. He’s smooth too, articulate in a way that we don’t expect most cons to be, let alone someone who has spent most of his adult life in jail. So what’s the deal? Has he died and gone to heaven?
For a time director David Sington throws up so many questions, with no answers, that you’re unsure if you’re watching a documentary or a sly facsimile of one. If this is Nick Yarris, has he been granted his wish, with the interview an unlikely opportunity to tell his story before the chair? Has he already been executed, with this an actor portraying him, offering the story of a Death Row inmate’s incarceration? Or is the whole thing a fiction? It would defeat the object for audiences to turn to Google before watching the film. Instead, allow Sington and the man in front of his camera to perform a thoroughly absorbing slow reveal – and in so doing offer an intricate insight into the US justice and penal systems, along with a story of one man’s misadventure and resolve.
Nick is a fascinating fellow. He looks a little like Ed Harris, balding, lean, like a whippet; but his voice has lightness, sweetness, rather than Harris’s manly gravel. He starts by recalling his introduction to a Pennsylvania prison, and the first two years in a block with 140 men who were “tortured with silence” by the guards, any sound met by violence, until a gay inmate from the prison choir is introduced to the block and breaks the taboo with song. For a time it feels like a perversely nostalgic account of life inside, a reflective, one-man “Shawshank,” told by a man consumed by his story.
Nick delivers his account with such rehearsed eloquence, dates cunningly withheld, that we remain uneasy, if not suspicious of its veracity. Lingering in the shadows is another question: what was his crime? Then a moment comes when the prison narrative takes a dramatic turn, Sington himself starts to show some of his cards, answers come, emotion brews; it’s now that the film truly becomes gripping.
Sington matches Nick’s recollections with routine visualisations and reconstructions, forgettable screen filler really, though it hardly matters since Nick himself is the dominant presence, and an increasingly riveting one. Though one recurring image, of a boy walking in the woods, will feature in a final, heart-rending revelation.