A drama, a thriller, a crime story, a true life epic and a documentary; Sington has created with The Fear of 13 something unlike anything that has come before it. It is a touching and provocative story, a monologue told by a convict on death row where he was kept for 23 years. Told in an interestingly episodic structure, at first his story talks about his treatment in prison, what it was like being kept in solitary confinement, the long silences, the other prisoners and the guards around him.
The film switches between his one man monologue direct to camera, which is raw and compelling and reenacted shots of a prison, to try and illustrate the world he is describing. His world was suddenly cut down to a number of rooms where he was treated brutally and cruelly by some of the prisoners and often the guards as well. But as the film goes on, the audience becomes more comfortable with Nick and it becomes clear that his story isn’t necessarily what it seems on the surface and as more is revealed, it pulls the audience in to learn what happened next. It is so rare to gain access to a story like this and to get it recorded on film and to then peel the layers away in front of the eyes of the audience makes it so worthwhile.
One of the most succinct part of the story is his memory of escaping briefly after he was on a journey to court, after one of the officers that he is with mistakes his actions for a threat. As this story unfolds, he brings the audience deeper into the story and ultimately makes them complicit in his actions. Usually a story like this is reserved for the fictional world or for an anchor on television news who is reporting events but for the convict himself after all these years, to be on screen and telling of his adventure makes for an incredible watch.
But having been convicted for murder and after two decades in prison, Nick decided to make one final plea. No more appeals, no more trying to right any wrongs but instead he makes a call. He petitions the court for the date of his execution. This is no life, sitting from one day to the next waiting for day that you’ll either be killed by another man in the prison (prisoner or guard) or by the chair but this was his final act of trying to take control of his own life and in turn, it unearthed new evidence and potentially could turn everything around.
One of the biggest successes of the film is also its flaw – the memories of Nick in The Fear of 13 are the stories of the film and in such are told like one. They unwind and unravel in such intimate and illuminating ways that you are forced to forgive detours around the story. But unfortunately there are points that Nick goes off on tandems or he gives background to other stories of his, which makes the narrative direction of the film feel messy or confused. There are moments when it is difficult to tell at point in his timeline he currently is.
But what makes The Fear of 13 so vital is that the story can ultimately ring true with anyone that watches it; it is about the human condition, being comfortable in our own skin and learning what makes us tick. Along the way, Nick falls in love – once with a woman who comes weekly to hear about the troubles of the prisoners and a second time with literature after a guard gives him some books and it is the power of these loves that kept him going for so many years.
The Fear of 13 is a story that has never been told so directly, so succinctly and so truthfully.