Where Eskimos Live caught my heart. It made me laugh and cry. It is a stunning accomplishment, showing the cruelties of war bluntly and without glossing over the facts of inhumanity and destruction. It is a simple but very convincing movie, centering around two very different characters and how they learn to trust and love each other in the sinister world of death, child trade and deceit.
Sharkey (Bob Hoskins) is an obscure man who travels around war-torn Bosnia in 1995. He claims to be a caseworker for UNICEF, a camouflage he makes use of to get orphaned boys for a Russian mafia syndicate in Poland. He is in his fifties, apparently rough and callous; a loner always chasing an opportunity to make as much money as possible. Vlado (Sergiusz Zymelka) is a nine-year-old boy, orphaned by the war and now a member of a gang of pre-teen hoodlums who fool the military and steal food whenever they get a chance.
After Sharkey's unlucky encounter with a colonel, who now claims him responsible for the death of his daughter and is hard on his heels, he meets Vlado's gang. Eventually, the young boy follows him, as Sharkey pretends coming from Norway that is where Eskimos live, and Vlado always wanted to go there. So the two of them walk off, heading for the border. Of course their journey is not as smoothly as Sharkey would have preferred it to be; they have to survive various dangerous adventures, in the course of which they gradually grow quite close. Having dealt with the colonel and managed to leave Bosnia, Sharkey and Vlado arrive in Poland. Now they have to face the Russians, which means new challenges. Sharkey's cunning deceit almost proves too daring, but again they manage to survive.
The movie is set and shot entirely on locations in Bosnia and Poland. The setting both time and place is the story's backbone. Thus it is a movie dealing with two characters and how they manage to survive amidst death and havoc in a war-torn country. The cruelties of war are shown in appalling images, visualized in all their crushing brutality and atrocity. Sharky and Vlado are surrounded by these images, by death and despair. They encounter deserters who are shot to death at a checkpoint on the street; they have to run for their lives when shells explode in their vicinity; they find piles of dead corpses, shot to death and terribly deformed. They are surrounded by these images and emotionally affected in a subtle but pervasive way, which leads to the establishment of an emotional bond between them that would have never attained its honesty and depth if it had not been for the hostile environment that makes them rely on each other.
The acting performances of the two protagonists are outstanding. Sergiusz Zymelka in particular delivers so genuine scenes that I was moved to tears occasionally. His handsome appearance, his vivid and bright eyes, his cleverness and his disarming charm make him shine. The scene when Sharky attempts to make a photograph of the boy for a new passport features an hilarious Vlado who makes faces and displays his childish gaiety. Apart from that I deeply appreciate his knowledge of English, which is remarkably well-developed for a boy his age.
Where Eskimos Live is a road movie; it lives by individual sequences that define its quality. The scene after the shooting of the two deserters is just awesome, so natural and authentic that I could almost feel the emotional scars inflicted in Sharky and Vlado. They lie down in the grass and scream they have just escaped death, and it is moving how Vlado makes Sharkey release his pent-up emotions.
This movie is never stereotypical or corny. It tells the story of one man who was looking for money but rather found something that was worth much more a boy who pins all his hopes on him, a boy who makes him a better person, and, above all, a boy who loves him. The movie won various awards, giving ample evidence for its essential quality. It is brutal, sometimes vulgar and thus hard to digest for young children, but flawless and never awkward. Honest authenticity and a wonderful father-son relationship make this low budget production a more than worthwhile experience that shows how two characters undergo challenges and changes, which strengthens their bond and deepens their love.