What To Expect When You’re Expecting To Die
*Spoilers are to be expected*
“Telling stories is telling lies.”
-B. S. Johnson
The Fear Of 13 is a documentary about a man called Nick Yarris who lied to the police in order to bargain for his innocence and ended up spending 23 years of his life on Death Row for a crime he did not commit. I did not know this upon entering, but the entire film is a monologue delivered by a seated Yarris occasionally intercut with atmospheric shots. This threw up some interesting considerations: Would Yarris be agreeable enough company to spend 96 minutes with? Would this true story be compelling enough to sustain such a simple format? Would the story be intriguing enough to make viewing worthwhile? Some of these questions are answered below.
There are a couple of things about the way Yarris speaks that I found strange at first. Text at the beginning states his story has been independently verified, but although he is incredibly articulate, his mannerisms seem affected rather than honest, full of exaggerated gesticulations and onomatopoeic words combined with realistic sound effects to really assert their impact. It makes you distrustful of his story, as if he is an actor rather than a chronicler of the truth. To be clear, I am not doubting the veracity of his story: I am just saying that its presentation made it seem more like the performance of a dramatic monologue than a documentary. I do not know whether this is the result of Yarris’s personality or any direction he may have received, although as I will explain later, I suspect the former.
This is partly due to its non-chronological structure. It begins with him talking about being on Death Row but does not reveal why he is there until much later in the film than I expected. The explanation for why he became the kind of person he did is not given until so late in the film that one of my cinema-going companions fell asleep before the revelation. I found this to be the most telling problem of the film, as it transpired to be so pivotal to the story and Yarris’s psychology that its introduction earlier on would have done much to eliminate the veneer of pretense.
The other jarring component of his soliloquy is the sentimentality he displays when he talks about falling in love, a section which is full of the expected clichés. So if all this is true, why does he seem like this?
A Modern Don Quixote
One of the things that Yarris did while in prison was read 1,000 books in 3 years. This is an astonishing feat but he had the time. He read novels and law books, but was especially fond of what he calls ‘tales’. At first I thought this would be a story about how his reading led to his freedom, the same way Frederick Douglass’s learning to read enabled his emancipation from slavery, and there is an aspect of that when he notices a newspaper article about the new technology of DNA testing, which eventually leads to his release. I even think this is probably the story the filmmakers thought they were making. I think the documentary, however, reveals a less obvious truth, though perhaps unintentionally.
The perils of literary overindulgence as subject matter for artistic scrutiny is at least as old as Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and though Yarris did not suffer that eponymous character’s severe delusions, what came across for me was actually a little more insidious. Yarris learned from reading all those ‘tales’ not how to lie, but how to present his story. This is why he seems like an actor: He has learnt how to be his own narrator.
The above quotation from B. S. Johnson is perhaps an oversimplification of the problem, which is a predicament many documentary-makers find themselves in: Picking and choosing what to tell and what not to is necessary to make a coherent story, but also runs the risk of misleading the viewer. I do not think that Yarris or the film intentionally mislead. I think they are trying to tell a true story of injustice and victory over insurmountable odds and they largely succeed. If this had been all that comprised the film, I would not have thought about it as much.
Oh What A Tangled Web We Weave
The final hand the film plays is a traumatic experience Yarris had when he was young. It happened when he was 13. At least, I am pretty sure it happened when he was 13 because that would explain the title, but I may be wrong. It was this that taught him how easy it was to lie and how hard it was to go back once the lie had been told. It is as if the filmmakers want you to see the disclosure of this revelation as his final salvation, his overcoming of the fatal flaw of deceit by telling his most painful truth.
What the revelation left me with was the uneasy feeling that our experiences unavoidably shape who we become as people. He may have escaped the death penalty, but what he cannot escape is the aura of dishonesty that seems to permeate his presentation of a true story. I will say again, and it is worth repeating so my argument is not misconstrued as an accusation of falsehood: I am not saying he is lying. I am saying that he portrays himself in a manner that is consistent with someone who has spent the majority of his life lying, even when he is telling the truth. This is perhaps the kind of unexpected lesson only achievable in the documentary format. Fictional stories would most likely have taken great pains to have actors imitating someone who portrayed themselves in a more realistic fashion, as in the British version of the sitcom The Office for example, in order to make their story more believable. Because the filmmakers allow Yarris to tell his own story, however, a more interesting character portrait is revealed, one of someone who has matured from outright lying to moulding the truth into a story.