Age 21, Nicholas Yarris was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a woman. He spent the next 20 years on death row, where he continually protested his innocence. The Fear Of Thirteen explores the story behind his extraordinary situation.
Director David Sington takes the perhaps unusual step of allowing Nick to tell his own story entirely in his own words. The majority of the 90 minute documentary is simply Nick talking to a point off camera, recounting his life from an early age. At the start of the film The Sloth found ourselves confused and then disappointed, for this surely was an actor interpreting Nick’s words, not Nick himself, such was the elaboration and emotional range that he puts in, embellishing his sentences with gestures, sounds, the illustration of how someone said this or did that, adding unexpected bursts of humour to the blackest situations. But no, this is indeed Nick. For this film is as much about the concept of storytelling and the redemptive power of words as it is about questions of guilt or innocence.
Inevitable comparisons to a one-man play are there to be drawn. Not only from the theatrical nature of Nick’s ‘performance’ but from the dramatic narrative arc of his life. An errant youth spent joyriding and indulging in petty crime escalated into drug addiction and finally the accusation of murder, an accusation that stemmed ironically from lies of Nick’s own devising. Confinement on death row led to self reflection and the discovery of reading, whereupon Nick went from barely literate to devouring 1,000 books in just a few years, learning as much about himself as the world of literature.
This is an utterly compelling documentary. Nick is a charismatic and hypnotic protagonist, bringing alive the secretive world behind bars and drawing you in. Simultaneously, The Sloth found ourselves wondering how much of his seductive delivery was a fiction, a testament to the power of his mastery of words, but we were lucky enough to attend a screening that concluded with a Q&A from the director and producer who assured us his story was carefully vetted and was all entirely true. Ultimately, this is a story of redemption and a testament to self-belief against formidable odds. Gripping, life-affirming and, like all the best stories, highly entertaining.