‘The Fear of 13’ tells sensational story of death row inmate’s turbulent life

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Abby Kempf

Nicholas Yarris was a wild child. He went on “joy rides” with his friends, which meant they stole cars and then, when they were done racing them through town, sold them to a shady collision repairman. He used a lot of drugs, his favorite being methamphetamine. He didn’t attend school and mainly lived on the streets or here or there at a friend’s house.
We meet him decades later, as he tells his own story. The documentary is solely his interview with only supplemental, illustrative footage and sound to break up his trail of speech. Yarris, with gusto, humor and sheer honesty, delivers the story of his life as a death row inmate.
The film begins with him describing solitary confinement and the deafening silence of the prison, the brutality of the guards and the violence among prisoners. It is not clear why he is there.
Instead of following a linear path, this movie deviates back and forth from past, present and future telling every detail of Yarris’ life.
[quote]Yarris articulates his story with such clarity, fluency and detail that at times he seems to be either an actor or a PhD. [/quote] Piece by piece the documentary drops new information, keeping the viewer on the edge of her seat and audibly gasping, laughing and certainly in awe throughout the entire film. Yarris’ multi-faceted tale reveals his search for knowledge, self-actualization, love and ultimately proof of his innocence. Throughout, the documentary uses a central theme of music and popular songs of the time to detail the transcendence and progression of Yarris’ battle, not only engaging the viewer, but also illuminating a deeper, more thoughtful side of Yarris.
Undoubtedly the most interesting part of Yarris is his love of learning. When faced with a life spent behind bars, he decided to become literate and transform himself into a better person. Further yet, he desires to be fluent, seeking to have an even better vocabulary than a student with a perfect 2400 SAT. To do so, he reads everything he can get his hands on. For each word he comes across that he does not know he applies his 10 word rule. He writes down the word 10 times, each time without looking at the last, and then uses it, aloud, in 10 different sentences.
This ancedote is one of seemingly hundreds told Yaaris as he details his experiences with two gay lovers in his first prison who were separated, witnessing a prisoner stabbing and killing another in the shower room, how he got himself entangled in the murder case of beaten, raped and stabbed to death Mrs. Linda May Craig, among many others. Yarris articulates his story with such clarity, fluency and detail that at times he seems to be either an actor or a PhD.
As an emotionally riveting, at times heart-wrenching, film that shows the corruption of innocence, the effects of environment, the importance of a fair trial, the necessity of human interaction and the almost universal relatability all humans share, this documentary will not soon be forgotten during conversations surrounding not only criminal justice, but more importantly the death penalty. Eight years in the making, ‘The Fear of 13’ was well worth the wait.
See it tomorrow Saturday March 6 at 12:45 pm at The Blue Note.