Steve James on His Must-See Doc, ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis,  Steve James (the Oscar-nominated Hoop Dreams director) stumbled upon the most incredible story. He met the Sung family, the owners of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which is located in New York’s Chinatown with just six branches. The family and their bank became the subject of his latest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.

Aside from the Sungs’ natural charisma, what makes this such a fascinating film is that Abacus Federal Savings was the only U.S. bank indicted during the Great Recession. The New York District Attorney’s office wanted to nail the bank for fraudulent activity in its loans department—which the Sungs reported as soon as they found out about it—and make them an example to other institutions. Abacus was harshly punished with a long, exhausting trial, and their prosecution was colored by cultural bias and pettiness.

James and his crew followed the Sungs through their meals, business meetings and family feuds, then filled in the documentary with courtroom audio and illustrations, transcripts, and interviews with the lawyers who prosecuted them. It’s a complicated case that will leave you incredulous.

MASS APPEAL spoke with James about this stranger-than-fiction tale which is out May 19, his lucky discovery and the legacy of 1994’s Hoop Dreams.

MASS APPEAL: I’m a little surprised I really had no idea about this story. Correct me if I’m wrong, but why is the story so unknown?

Steve James: I can only speculate, because it baffles me too, especially the fact that it took place in New York City, not like some out of the way town. I think it has to do with the fact that when the financial crisis hit in 2008, this was such a small bang, whether Abacus was innocent or guilty, for much of the press, didn’t matter. It wasn’t important enough to take seriously. One of the reasons why this is such an important story is because of its distinction as being the only US bank to be criminally indicted, and the fact that the DA’s office linked the fraud that was going on at Abacus to the larger mortgage crisis when he indicted them and chained these former employees together and paraded them down the hallways in front of the cameras. And maybe some aspect of it is the fact that it was a bank serving the Chinese-American community in Chinatown and it wasn’t a bank whose reach had impact on the majority of readers and consumers of the mainstream media. That’s my best guess.

But you were in it as it was happening. How did you even discover the story or meet them?

I discovered the story through producer Mark Mitten, who was friends with the family going back 10 years. At some point right before the trial, he reached out to me and said, “There’s this crazy case going on in New York City with this small bank in Chinatown. I know the family, and they’re being prosecuted for this,” I was like, “What a crazy story.” He had read the introductory chapter to Matt Taibbi’s book, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, which had come out not too long before that. He wrote in his introduction about the indictment of the bank. When the book came out they hadn’t gone to trial, so it’s a pretty great framing of what, in his view, was an example of the unequal application of justice in America. So he devoted his introduction to telling the story of the indictment of Abacus.

You present the Sungs as the ones in the right. Was that clear to you from the beginning?

My sense was, “Okay, I’ll go to New York, we’ll film for a few days, we’ll get a sense of what the story really is here,” but I also wanted to take a measure of them. Frankly, if I had thought they were guilty, I don’t know if I would have wanted to tell that story myself. We really weren’t able to be with the defense lawyers until the conclusion of the trial, so we take you into the courtroom through reenactments and illustrations, and we give you the prosecution’s point of view when we were able to interview them finally after the trial.

When we began filming, we discovered pretty quickly that the only access we were going to have was to the family and the ordeal they were going through. I think that if I had gotten the sense that they were guilty, I probably would not have made the film. I wouldn’t have wanted to ingratiate myself into a family who’s going through this ordeal, thinking they were guilty and pulling for their conviction or something. I’m not that kind of filmmaker.

But it didn’t take long for me to conclude that I thought that these were very principal people, that they were horrified that they were on trial, that they felt like they had nothing to hide. Regardless of how this verdict came out, we were telling this story. They were fine with that. Of course they didn’t want to be found guilty, but they felt so strongly about their innocence that they were willing to take that leap with us, and that told me a lot too.

On top of this being an important story to tell, I found the Sungs to be very charismatic and funny. I’m guessing you kind of picked up on that dynamic immediately.

Oh yeah, I immediately liked them a lot and that dynamic was pretty present from the start. There was clearly a lot of underlying love and respect for one another, but there was also a lot of bickering and disagreements and humor. When we started filming, Mrs. Sung, the mom, wasn’t sure if she wanted to be filmed. I had met her and we were still willing to go forward with it but when we finally interviewed her, we realized she was a gift from the documentary gods.

She was my queen.

She steals the movie in a lot of ways. I was also struck with the dynamic that exists between immigrant parents and their first generation daughters.

I’m curious how much of a headache it was to sort out all the legal and banking details on top of everything else that went into it.

Oh God, it was not easy. There were 8,000 pages of trial transcript. I did not read them all but between the members of our team and Mark and the editors, we surveyed and figured out a way to organize the materials so that we could search it easily. The hard thing about a film like this for me in terms of the storytelling is that it’s laughably small fraud. Even Ken Yu, who was the outlier taking bribes and doing bad stuff, was still committing petty fraud. It’s not the kind of case where you have major banks engaged in really appalling practices and people lose their mortgages, because people didn’t lose their mortgages. They weren’t involved in shady deals with drug rings, all that kind of crazy stuff. This was all really small stuff, and so I think one of the challenges in trying to tell this story was to be true to the pettiness of it all.

I’ve seen this movie be called an activist film. Is that how you see it?

I don’t see it as an activist film, I don’t think of myself as an activist filmmaker. I make films that get at social issues, but I don’t set out to make a film on social issues. I wasn’t casting around like, “I’d like to do a film about the unequal application of justice in America, oh here’s a good story.” It seemed unbelievable, it seemed significant and we went about telling it. We could have really heaped on the kind of rabid anti-DA’s office rhetoric, but we didn’t do that. But, at the same time, it’s clear from the get go who we think is right and who we think is wrong, and in that respect I feel like we were just doing the right thing. It just felt intellectually honest, and morally and ethically honest to say, “Look, this is what we think, these folks are innocent and this is wrong, but at the same time we’re going to lay the case out against them in this film. We’re going to do everything in our power to get the DA and his office in this film so that they can speak up for what they believe to be true.” We got turned down repeatedly but eventually succeeded and that was because we really truly did want their point of view.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a a documentary miniseries called America To Me focused on a very diverse and well-funded public high school in the Chicago area that has a proud history of integration and diversity. It’s very liberal, yet it has struggled to bridge a divide between the academic performance of its white students and its black students for decades. So we were able to be in there for a year and follow kids and their families and teachers.

Would you say it’s similar to Hoop Dreams?

It’s in the same vein. It’s very much a vérité-driven project in which we are intensively following people over the course of a year. It’s not as ambitious in terms of the time frame; in Hoop Dreams we filmed for nearly five years. But the intensity of our focus and the breadth of our focus across all these stories is the same approach.

How has Hoop Dreams aged for you?

I think the film does hold up because a lot of the issues that emanate out of that film, even though it’s not an issue-oriented film, hold up. What was going on in the lives of those kids and their families and the communities they lived in in Chicago are still very much with us. Kids still aspire to use sports, or increasingly these days music and rap, as a kind of escape. That dream is still very much with us. We are still struggling with a lot of the issues of race that I think come out of the experience of those kids too. I think it connects for all those reasons but also because those kids and their families were so authentic and real and open and I feel like those are the kinds of things that don’t age when people are open and candid and let you in. That, I hope, is always timely.

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