Thomas Sung owns and operates Abacus Federal Savings Bank in New York’s Chinatown. The bank, with his daughters Jill (President & CEO) and Vera (Director), serves a clientele composed primarily of local small-business owners of Chinese descent, many first-generation Americans or direct immigrants. Hence, Abacus is an important part of this community, as it gives this cash-rich, credit-poor population access to high-quality financial products like savings accounts, safety deposit boxes, and loans – including mortgages.
But Steve James’s ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail isn’t simply a documentary on a successful community bank, because Abacus Federal Savings Banks holds the ignominious distinction of being the only US bank charged with mortgage fraud following the late 2000s Financial Crisis.
ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail documents the absurdity of the trial against Abacus by interweaving interviews with defendants, prosecutors, and even jurors. Courtroom drawings are used to liven up some of the testimony, which gives the film an appreciable amount of color and warmth. The case revolves around an insufferable loan officer who was following the Financial Crisis playbook to a T: encourage loan applicants to lie about their income and or employment position in order to obfuscate their financial situation, and then sell that loan to Fannie Mae. One Friday, when Jill Sung learned that one of her loan officers was acting this way, she fired him by Monday. In the resulting legal fallout (because many loan applicants did not receive their money), Abacus was forthcoming with all documents, and cooperated with all officials.
Then Fannie Mae levied 240 felony counts against the bank.
From here, the film explores the questionable tactics and reasoning behind this prosecution, and the exploitative nature of the entire operation. When a dozen members of the bank are arraigned in a chain-gang style march for the cameras, you start to feel as if Abacus was chosen because it is run by Chinese people for Chinese immigrants. Further, when a juror explains that she felt a, “Broader responsibility to make an example” of the family bank, you begin to feel that Abacus was simply an easier target than Lehman Brothers or Deutsche Bank. This film is a poignant intersection of the kind of systemic injustice that is birthed from government officials in bed with financial institutions. And when that system goes wrong, the higher-ups start looking for a scapegoat.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2017 coverage. The film opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, June 2nd