‘It is very specific to one part of underprivileged French society. Showing the Roma in relation to the rest of society is very good in my opinion.’
What could be more challenging for a young realisateur, or filmmaker, than representing a multicultural society without reducing an entire community to a few stereotypical tropes – perhaps devil-like, romantic, exotic or sexual? Moreover, how could this be accomplished while also being creative enough to depict characters (from ethnic, national, regional, gender, religious or class-based communities) which are rich and multifaceted in the real world? It helps a great deal if you, as a young realisateur, are from the community being represented. This is exactly what occurred to Teddy Lussi-Modeste. In his first feature film Jimmy Riviére he renders a view from inside a ‘gens du voyage’ (French Romani) community in Grenoble (eastern France).
‘Gens du voyage’ is a general expression in French for people who habitually travel, and this includes ‘Gitanes’ (the French Romani, ‘Gypsy’ or ‘Manush’ community). However, this concept is much more complicated in the film than simply defining ‘Gitanes’ as ‘gens du voyage’ or ‘travellers’. Therefore, the difficulties of (self-) definition is the main theme in Jimmy Riviére, and accordingly it has a complex storyline, with a realistic yet disturbing representation of the everyday life of a French Romani religious community. Their lives are burdened by antagonistic forces both inside their communities and beyond.
Who has the right to define or to control one’s own identity? Does the majority of society have this right, or the community that the individual belongs to? Or perhaps the individuals themself possess this right. The film and its protagonist, Jimmy Riviére, are desperately seeking to answer these questions.
The complication of the film stems from Jimmy’s situation, exposed as it is to antagonistic forces: he is a member of a ‘gens du voyage’ Roma community in which basic values are defined by the Pentecostal (Baptist) religion. In order to be a fully devout member of the community (and to become baptised), he must abandon his ‘earthly passions’, for example his involvement in Thai boxing and his romantic relationship with a Muslim girl, Sonia.
Jimmy is in a difficult situation because both his religious community and his ‘earthly passions’ want to maintain their connection with him, and consequently he faces a continuous struggle both with the outer world and with himself.
Beyond this, Jimmy finds that he does not feel Christ strongly enough in his life, despite searching for him both in the forest (which is the topos of God in the film, or rather the topos of searching for God), and in the Bible. Even the method suggested by José, the pastor of the community, doesn’t help. Twice Jimmy randomly opens the Bible, and finds nothing but enigmatic excerpts, like ‘The next day Jesus came to him. He said: Behold, the Lamb of God, who removes the world’s sins’ (John 1:29) and ‘Let his homestead be made desolate and let no one dwell in it’ (Psalms 69:25) Which is more appropriate for Jimmy?
The dilemmas of identity are multiplied in Jimmy Riviére, as it seems impossible to find an autonomous individual defined by no one but him- or herself. That is what distinguishes the film Jimmy Riviére from the traditional representation of the Romani community in European and global cinema.
Jimmy’s identity is not exclusively that of a ‘Gyppo’ (as he refers to it himself), but is multi-layered instead. In fact, as a traveller, Jimmy does live in a van, but when he converses harshly with the offensive and racist city representative (who displays stereotypical prejudices about the ‘gens du voyage’, and claims that ‘Gypsies’ are ‘accustomed to travelling’) he proves that he and his community have a Grenoble identity as well.
He mixes Romani words into his speech (nachave, gadje, choukar), but his mother tongue is French. He is Christian but in love with a Muslim girl. Thus, Jimmy’s personal values and identities clash both within himself and within the larger body of the film. The result is a hybrid and multidimensional identity which is difficult for both sides to accept.
The advice to ‘figure out your identity first’ can only be accomplished it is a multiple identity, or, in the words of the pastor, a ‘tainted’ one. Jimmy Riviére feels the burden of this hybridity, and Jimmy Riviére invites the viewer to bear a little of his burden. In this way, the hybrid manner of representing Roma individuals (as in Árpád Bogdán’s Happy New Life, Hungary, 2017) plays an important role in the process of recognition.
Instead of God, Jimmy finally finds a language for his testimony, which is to be presented in front of the large congregation of the Pentecostal community. Although the viewer doesn’t know the content of the testimony, the clouds mirrored in the windshield and across Jimmy’s face lead us back to one of the two Bible excerpts shown as the film ends.
Prix du public at the Festival Premier Plan d’ Angers, 2011
Chansel¸ Dominique: ‘Roma on the Screen: The Roma on Europe’s Cinema Screens – Images of Freedom’, Education of Roma Children in Europe, Council of Europe, https://www.coe.int/t/dg4/education/roma/Source/Roma_screen_EN.pdf
Jimmy Rivière on Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Rivi%C3%A8re
Forest, Claude (ed.): L’ Internationalisation des productions cinématographiques et audiovisuelles, Lille: Presses Univitaires du Septentrion, 2017
Lussi-Modeste, Teddy on Wikipedia, https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teddy_Lussi-Modeste
Mauge, Sébastien: ‘Lascar face’, aVoir-aLire.com, 17 December 2013, https://www.avoir-alire.com/jimmy-riviere-la-critique
Payan, Mathieu: ‘Et au milieu coule Jimmy Rivière’, Abus de Ciné, 9 March 2011, http://www.abusdecine.com/critique/jimmy-riviere
Piazzi, Sabrina: ‘Jimmy Riviére: le test complet du DVD’, DVDFr.com, 13 April 2012, http://www.dvdfr.com/dvd/c55761-jimmy-riviere.html
For more reviews see http://www.allocine.fr/film/fichefilm_gen_cfilm=173825.html