Fear of 13
Directed by David Sington, UK, 2015, Running time 96mins, premiere 10th October 2015
A welcome resurgence of narrative in British filmmaking
By Sophie Walsh
Triskaidekaphobia (the fear of the number ‘13’) is one of the words Nick Yarris taught himself on death row. Having been granted access to books after a battle with the guards, he voraciously devoured over one thousand of them in just 3 years. How he was influenced by them is still apparent when he speaks publically today, referring to ‘Kubla Khan’ and the Iliad, seeming semi-metaphors for his experiences during and after death row in Pennsylvania.
‘Fear of 13’, a film 8 years in the making from David Sington and producer Chris Riley, puts Nick Yarris front and centre of a documentary about his time in the US prison system. Having been arrested several times for drug use and grand theft auto, he was on the radar when the body of Linda Mae Craig was found in the snow in Pennsylvania on December 15th 1981. Hoping that helping the police would get him off his charges, he pinned the murder on an acquaintance he believed to be dead. Crucially, he was not. Lacking any other leads, police incarcerated Yarris who subsequently went on trial for the murder of Craig and was sentenced to death on January 23rd 1983. The film documents Yarris desperate battle for exoneration from 1983 to his eventual release in 2004 over 20 years later. Were it not for his strength of character and the advent of DNA technology, he may have still been awaiting the electric chair.
Editing devices used throughout this film bring the story alive, the superimposition of pistol shots and heavy footsteps over Yarris’ narrative bring to mind childhood storytelling, but the film would arguably not have been made at all were it not for the storytelling prowess of its protagonist. Yarris is a dynamo, at points practically falling off his chair with animated vigour when describing heated conversations with egocentric prison guards; or reflecting with music in his eyes when recalling the haunting song of a fellow inmate breaching the stony silence of solitary confinement.
Testament to the strength of the narrative, Sington has done little to this film and the minimalist approach has paid off. There is no denying Nick has done unlawful things in his past however, the pacing of this film is clever and subtle such that you come to root for Nick against the unparralled injustice and overzealous pseudo bureaucracy he experiences whilst incarcerated for murder in the American prison system. And unjust it can be, a study carried out by Samuel Gross, Law Professor at the University of Michigan highlighted a 4.1% error rate among people sentenced to death from 1973 and 2004.
In 2001, only 4 documentary films were released in UK cinemas, in 2013 that number had grown to 89. We are witnessing an emergence of fantastic British documentary filmmaking on our big screens now. Sington’s earlier collaboration with Riley, ‘In the Shadow of the Moon’ received the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance in 2007, and an award for promoting scepticism in science in the media. Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ (2015) eclipsed all previous records to become the highest grossing British documentary film of all time. As a vehicle for challenging us on social issues be it scepticism surrounding the moon landings, drug and alcohol rehabilitation or penal reform, it seems the importance of narrative is having its day.
 Gross et al (2014) Rate of false conviction of criminal defendants who are sentenced to death from (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America, Washington, USA)