Welcome to The Wright Stuff, our weekly column following the career of Raptors point guard Delon Wright. Since we can’t influence his training or anything on the court, we’ll recommend films that reflect his past week and hopefully inspire a leap forward. It’ll be part film breakdown, part essay, and part whatever loose piece of wisdom we can shake from the experience.
It’s said often that each and every NBA player believes himself to be the best player in the league. Some are humble about this statement, acknowledging in time their limitations and eventual role in the broader association. Others maintain a certain level of delusion, secure in the specious self-knowledge that in the right situation, with just the right mix of circumstances, they too can ascend into the upper echelon.
Standing outside of the process, it seems like you’d have to be a little crazy, right? So few people make it to the NBA, so few are able to become the very best of the best; it’s a lot of work to even consider. The opportunities to fail, meanwhile, start early and come often. Even the coolest among us would have to be at least semi-maniacal in their approach to the game. At least that’s how it feels from the outside, to see others consumed by a belief in themselves — even if it’s misplaced.
To zero in on Delon Wright for a moment, at almost 26 years of age, we know the die has already been cast. There’s room for Wright to improve of course, but the gates to the top have been closed for him. Still, that doesn’t mean he can’t strive to achieve more. And that he (and we) won’t believe it will happen.
One by one the Ahankhahs, a family of four in Iran, meet Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a world-renowned filmmaker. On the face of it, this would be no great story, if not for a disquieting fact: the man calling himself Makhmalbaf is not who he says he is. He is actually Hossain Sabzian, a lonely unemployed man struggling to make ends meet. This is where we begin in Close-Up, the 1990 film from a different world-renowned filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami. It is based on a true story, as some sequence of these events really did happen — but how much of it do we believe is real, and how much is not?
Again, on the face of it, the story here is rather simple. A journalist fills us in: Sabzian is to be arrested for fraud, and made to stand trial. The Ahankhahs have seen through this poor man’s rouse and want him punished. They’re not malicious about it (if anything they’re embarrassed) but the law of society must be upheld. So, on to the courtroom. Kiarostami cuts from the Ahankhahs house to the trial (and then back again), and we watch as Sabzian is interrogated. Why did he do it? What was his aim? How should he be punished?
However, as is usual with a Kiarostami film, there’s more than the mere face of it. For one, all of the people in the film are playing themselves. They star in the film not in non-fictional real-time, but as performers carrying out recreations of what has already happened. The emotions — embarrassment, sadness, regret — have already been expressed. We watch as Sabzian offers his explanation on camera: he wanted to be someone, to be treated like Makhmalbaf (for whom he has obvious respect), he wanted to be a filmmaker even if he was only pretending, he wanted to feel connected to art. There’s a minor tragedy at play here, as Sabzian discusses how he experiences film, and how hard it is to do so in a society that has cast him aside. What he did was wrong, but he wanted to believe he could make it right.
Kiarostami presents this all as matter-of-fact documentary. Sometimes we hear him ask questions, or see parts of his production stumble into the action (a boom mic in the frame, a clapperboard starting a scene). The line between what is real and staged is blurred beyond measure. The Ahankhahs relive their embarrassment, the judge re-asks his questions, and Sabzian attempts once again to explain. Did Kiarostami put those words in his mouth? In all of their mouths? We have merely to believe what we’re being shown is an accurate account. It definitely feels real.
Wright is real too! (Yes, of course, this goes without saying, but I’m saying it anyway.) At some point in time he had to convince himself of that — that he was a real NBA player and had what it took to prove it. With his older brother Dorell already being scouted, it’s fair to assume Delon had an inkling early that he could make it as a professional basketball player. But of course, that only goes so far (another thing that goes with out saying). You still need to walk the path.
I’m going to spoil the final sequence of Close-Up now because there’s no way my words could ever do these images (this reality?) justice. In the final 10-15 minutes of the film, Kiarostami somehow engineers a meeting between Sabzian (the fake Makhmalbaf) and the very real, actual guy. They meet just as Sabzian exits prison. The tearful breakdown in that moment, beyond all the other staging and chicanery from before, feels wholly real. It is heart-rending to see this mix of passion, guilt, respect, and self-loathing in a single moment — and it’s impossible to fake.
Sabzian wanted to be Makhmalbaf not so he could rip off a family for something as cheap as money, but because he yearned to be closer to his dream. He wanted to believe in something else. Is it fake because there was no way to make it real? Or does this burning belief transmute it into something more tangible? Sabzian is a part of a wonderful piece of art now, and that should count for something.
In this world, free of cameras, Wright is still off the court, but he — and we — want to see him return shortly. There’s been rumblings of a return to 3-on-3 action. We hope he gets to play all-out soon, and ultimately find his way in the league. He’ll never be its best player, even if deep down he told himself he would be someday, and that’s OK. He’s here.
At the end of Close-Up, the two men get on a motorbike and ride over to the Ahankhahs for a visit. Sabzian is still overcome, but Makhmalbaf remains cool — it’s clear he wants the best for him. When they meet the family’s patriarch, he utters what we’re all thinking: “I hope he'll be good now and make us proud of him.” Freeze frame, abashed expression, and raw untouched belief.