Originally written for PinkNews.
Stephen Fry is undoubtedly one of the nation’s favourite storytellers. He beguiled a generation as the voice of the best-selling Harry Potter audiobooks and as the host of QI, he regularly flaunts his anecdotal prowess. But can he tell one of the most important stories of the 21st century? Can he grapple with the global struggle for gay rights? In Out There, the celebrity polymath rises to the challenge.
Out There is a two part BBC documentary series in which Fry explores attitudes towards homosexuality around then world. Over a period of two and a half years, he travels to Uganda, Russia, Brazil, India and the US. In some countries, like India, things seem to be moving in the right direction. Others – most notably Russia and Uganda – are heading backwards.
The programmes are primarily comprised of interviews. Fry talks to both the victims of homophobia and political figures pushing anti-gay prejudice.
The director, Fergus O’Brien, has said that he wanted to put love (and the prohibition of it) at the centre of the story. By broadcasting the personal struggles of those robbed of loved ones and those separated from their partners, he is successful in doing so. The programme is not laden with statistics, but with devastating accounts of how homophobia has affected individuals and families around the world. This approach strikes a chord where a more impersonal one may have struggled.
Fry himself is at his best when interviewing the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of homophobia. He responds to their recollections with sincerity and warmth. His understated, yet sympathetic approach permits viewers to reflect on what they are hearing. This is important, as the stories themselves certainly leave a lasting impression.
It is heartening to hear from a range of voices and to hear Fry acknowledge the importance of seeking these out. In the second episode, Fry visits an ostracised transgender community in India and is then filmed asking a wealthier gay audience to use their privilege to empower those living outside the liberal metropolis. The programme makers could have simply showcased the struggles each nation’s English-speaking middle-class. Instead viewers benefit from brave editorial decisions – they are asked to identify with those in very different circumstances to their own.
Fry meets with homophobic politicians in Uganda, Russia and Brazil. Needless to say, these exchanges are somewhat more fiery. Some might claim that Fry is too heated and passionate in these meetings. They may argue that by goading and laughing at these influential figures, he somewhat lets them off the hook. However, in interview after interview, these individuals demonstrate that they are unwilling to consider any opinion but their own and so the room for debate is severely limited. It should be said that Fry still gives this his best shot – going into each encounter hopeful that the man opposite him will listen to reason. But he soon finds his comments are falling on deaf ears.
The best Fry can hope to achieve with these interviewees is to expose their ignorance and the dangerous absurdity of their views. At one point the Ugandan Minister for ‘Ethics and Integrity’ is filmed claiming that heterosexual rape is more justifiable than homosexuality because it is “natural”. These encounters are both bizarre and upsetting. Laughable and yet chilling. One often is often uncertain of how to react, but not once bored.
The phrase ‘emotional roller coaster’ is undoubtedly an overused cliché which no self-respecting critic would employ. However (perhaps unfortunately for me) it does describe Out There rather well. Alongside Fry, I was reduced to tears on multiple occasions. I shed tears of joy at triumphs of equality and of sadness at the harrowing tales of abuse. Out There is a well-constructed, profoundly moving and important documentary series. For anyone interested in gay rights or simply the human cost of prejudice around the world, it is well worth a watch.
Both parts of the documentary are available on BBC iPlayer.