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By Brian Tallerico | March 11, 2013

Andrea Thiele & Lia Jaspers And Who Taught You to Drive? raises some interesting questions about how much of a role driving plays in our cultural identity. It’s one thing to be a stranger in a strange land but when you’re reliant on other people to drive you around via hired cars, trains, taxis, etc., it enhances that sense that you’re not really in control of your own destiny. The three central figures in this documentary try to take control of their vehicular fates and discover that even learning how to drive comes with cultural pitfalls. While there is plenty of room for interesting cultural and even anthropological commentary in this concept, Drive is surprisingly slight, never really developing in ways that expand beyond its concept or continue the conversation it begins in interesting ways.

The three fish out of water in And Who Taught You to Drive? are undeniably far from their home ponds. Mirela is a fashion designer who has moved to India to find the fabrics that will inspire her to create the visions in her head. She is confident, focused, and driven nearly insane by the lack of the same qualities in the people around her. One hired driver runs out of gas and another has no idea where he’s going. And so Mirela asks to rent her own car without a driver, learning that she’ll have to undergo driving lessons first. In a crowded country in which the sound of car horns seems more prevalent than birds whistling, Mirela is surprised at the restrained approach to instruction that seems to regularly be asking her to slow down.

On the other end of the spectrum, Hye-Won is instructed by Herr Krieger to accelerate more quickly. This South Korean transplant to Germany is a slower learner than the Autobahn allows. It doesn’t help that Hye-Won is going through one of the most tumultuous times in her life as she tries to get her German driver’s license. Her family is torn apart when her husband is called up to the Korean Army and forced to take her son back to South Korea with him. She is truly on her own and it’s interesting to watch how her confidence in getting her license seems to dwindle as her support structure collapses.

Speaking of confidence, one must have it in spades to even attempt to get a driver’s license in Tokyo, Japan. This is the lesson learned by Jake, an English teacher who hopes to someday use his artistic abilities but wants to not be a slave to the Japanese public transportation system first. Before he can even get on the road for a test, he has to pass an intensely complicated and culturally confusing written test. And before he can take that, Jake has to undergo a series of driving lessons with the lovable-but-strict Tetsuya. As someone tells Jake, the written driving test that he keeps taking is rigged for people to fail. It is a bizarrely strict procedure with poorly-written questions and the kind of twisted rules (the car door must be opened four inches exactly first to make sure no one is there before opening it all the way) that just enforce structure on something for the sake of doing so.

How much of our independence is tied up in our ability to drive? And does learning how to drive in another country make us intrinsically more attached to that culture and able to thrive in it? I wish And Who Taught You to Drive? felt more like it set out to answer these questions and less like it was designed as a character study. It’s great that we really get to know our three subjects but I couldn’t help thinking that if there were three more in other parts of the world that the overall themes of the piece might have resonated more completely. As is, it’s a piece that kind of meanders to a conclusion, especially given the few scenes near the end that feel somewhat unnaturally forced for filmmaking purpose. The filmmakers were very lucky in that they found three uniquely interesting personalities to track, and it is their three protagonists who make the film as entertaining as it ended up, but the final product feels like a term paper without an outline, a lesson with a great introduction but not enough focus to get a memorable grade.

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