Sitting on a plastic chair in the middle of a bare room, dressed in a simple blue shirt, Nick Yarris faces the lens and tells his life story. The camera remains closely framed on his face as he speaks, only cutting away for short dramatisations of the experiences he is describing. And dramatic they most certainly are, as Yarris spent over 20 years of his life on death row after being convicted of rape and murder in 1981, during which time he unwaveringly maintained his innocence.
To reveal any more detail would be to do Yarris a huge disservice; it’s his story to tell and he is an eloquent and entertaining raconteur. As he recounts a life defined by unthinkable hardship and cruelty he is often emotional but remains surprisingly philosophical, particularly when discussing the passion for reading he discovered behind bars and the spiritual salvation it offered. This journey from addiction to redemption is neatly mirrored by the fact that, as he speaks, half of his face remains in shadow, the other in light.
Similarly, director David Sington augments Yarris’s remarkable oral account with sensitive dramatisations that highlight pivotal moments. These are not reconstructions – we see no faces, hear no voices other than Yarris’s – rather they are sequences which evoke powerful emotions: a soaring love song reverberates through prison corridors to raise the hairs on the back of the neck; a boy runs through woods to create a sense of unease not fully realised until the closing moments.
The Fear of 13 (whose title refers to one of the new words, ‘triskaidekaphobia’, Yarris learned while in prison) is not just a fascinating individual story, but a damning insight into the procedures and failings of the US justice system. Let down by technological limitations and a shocking catalogue of human error, Yarris was at the mercy of a faceless machine he could not understand, let alone control. Now, over 30 years since his arrest, Sington’s captivating, compelling film offers him the most poetic of justice.
UK Release Date: November 13, 2015
This review was originally published by The List