‘The Fear of 13’ exemplifies captivating storytelling

One interview with a death row inmate provides the backdrop for an incredibly thrilling documentary.
Courtesy of True/False Film Fest

There’s something about gathering around a campfire to listen to a skillful storyteller weave a tale of suspense and thrill. From the eerie lighting to sitting on the edge of your seat (or log), that atmosphere is one of the most beloved and absorbing storytelling methods.

While director David Sington’s documentary “The Fear of 13” is a film showed on a screen in a theater, it feels almost exactly like a campfire thriller.

The storyteller in “The Fear of 13” is death row inmate Nick Yarris. The premise — shown through text instead of a narrator at the beginning of the film — is that after about two decades on death row, he asked for appeals to cease and his death penalty to be carried out.

Yarris sits in a chair alone, staring right through the camera and at you, with a lamp hitting his face so just half is lit and the other half is darkened. From the beginning of the film, you realize that it’s not a typical documentary. Instead of using several interviews to create a picture of past events, the only source needed is Yarris himself.

The whole documentary is based on this one interview. Through his words, you travel on his journey along with him. It does not feel so much like him describing the past, but like you’re experiencing his life in the present, waiting and waiting to know what happens at the end. Yarris’ almost strangely calm voice leads you through the journey, all while being extremely eloquent.

To enhance his story, the visuals (when not focused on Yarris himself) provide insight to the setting of his tales — e.g., showing his prison cell when he is talking about his time spent in it. Sound effects are also layered on top of his story to enhance it. When Yarris mocks the jingling of the prison guard’s keys, the real sound of keys is layered on top. Yarris describes a gunshot, and you hear it.

Another storytelling device involving the visuals is that at the beginning of the film, several clips and images are shown. As the film goes on, you see these images, such as a chair alone in a room, again. However, at these later points in time, the images now make sense as they are involved with the story. It provides both a bookend effect and several “a-ha” moments.

The story begins with frightening and shocking descriptions of prison. His living environment behind bars was terrible, miniscule, dark and, above all, silent. Viewers then follow him on an attempted escape, his arrest for a murder that he argues he did not commit, and the lengths he goes to prove his innocence. Yarris alone spins his tale, and you’re almost afraid to breathe lest you miss an important detail.

One of the most incredible parts of the story is that while in prison, he started spending his time learning the dictionary and reading every book possible, expanding his middle school reading level into the eloquent man he became. He started counting the days by how many words he learned. In three years, he had read a thousand books. He compares his love of books to a drug addiction, and says what sounds like a contradiction: “I was happy on death row.”

The use of audio and visuals to enhance Yarris’ incredible story, told by him alone, creates an amazing documentary. This story is one that frightens, shocks, creates suspense and uplifts. It’s truly one of the must sees from True/False, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very end.

MOVE gives “The Fear of 13” 5 out of 5 stars.

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