Doc Soup: Letter From Death Row

This month’s Doc Soup premiere goes deep, and dark


It’s a coincidence, but Doc Soup – the monthly Hot Docs series – is screening The Fear Of 13 at exactly the right cultural moment. We’ve spent the last few weeks watching Making A Murderer on Netflix and listening to the second season of Serial, and now The People Vs. O.J. Simpson has sparked a new wave of true-crime coverage in pop culture.

The Fear Of 13 is a true-crime story, but the crime being investigated isn’t what you think it will be. Directed by the British documentarian David Sington, it examines the case of Nicholas Yarris, a Pennsylvania drug addict and car thief sentenced to death for the brutal 1981 rape and murder of a young woman, Linda Mae Craig, in Delaware County.

There’s a lot to unpack in there, but it’s what happened after the conviction that proves the most compelling: in after two decades on death row, Yarris wrote to the governor of Pennsylvania asking for his sentence to be expedited: he wanted to be put to death with no further delays.

The Fear Of 13 lets Yarris tell his own story, straight to the camera, which will be your first hint that things didn’t turn out as he’d requested. (You can Google him easily enough, but if you have any interest in seeing this documentary, I’d advise going in knowing as little as you can.)

Sington approaches Yarris as if he’s delivering a monologue, enhancing his delivery with sound effects and stylized imagery that isn’t an attempt at straight re-creation or dramatic re-enactment, but an illustration of the speaker’s perspective. It works really well, both to drive the narrative and create an emotional pull in the material: Sington finds the midpoint between the hypnotic lull of Randall Dale Adams in Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line and the escalating panic of Spalding Gray in Jonathan Demme’s Swimming To Cambodia.

The film plays simultaneously on two levels: there’s the personal history, which is absolutely gripping, and the picture Yarris’s story creates of the American justice system, which either actively ensures human suffering or is monstrously indifferent to it. (And it’s hard not to see echoes of Steven Avery’s persecution in the circumstances of Yarris’s first trip through the courts.)

As a performer, Yarris is a natural, bringing incidents to life through the rhythms of his speech, his assured physicality and the occasional mimicked sound effect. I was initially amazed at his facility, but then I realized two things: first, that he’s obviously comfortable telling the story of his life, and second, he’s had plenty of time to think about it.

Doc Soup screens The Fear Of 13 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema tonight (Wednesday February 3) at 6:30 pm and 9:30 pm, and Thursday (February 4) at 6:45 pm. (Tickets can be purchased here or at the theatre’s box office.)

Sington will be present for Q&As after each screening. You’ll want to stick around for those.

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