Interview: Director Steve James talks Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

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Abacus: Small Enough to Jail tells the story of Abacus Federal Saving Bank and the Sung family that runs it. To date, the bank is still the only federal bank to be indicted for fraud in connection with the 2008 financial crisis. Therefore, the film is a tale of family, community, perseverance, and the unequal application of justice in America, especially with regards to immigrant populations. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to discuss the film with its’ director, Steve James. An accomplished documentarian, James has directed numerous award-winning films including Life Itself, The Interrupters, and Hoop Dreams.

Derek Jacobs: What drew you to the story of Abacus and the Sung Family? How did you discover the topic, and what made you interested in documenting it?

Steve James: Well, I first heard about it from Mark Mitten, a producer I’ve worked with for about 10 years. Mark was a friend of the Sung family. He told me there was this family in New York in Chinatown that ran the only federal bank to be criminally indicted for fraud charges in connection with the 2008 financial crisis. That got me interested. So, I went to New York with Mark, got a crew, and just tried to figure out what would be possible with this story. After meeting the Sung family, I started to get that this was a really compelling story.

You tell that story with a variety of different styles. Abacus: Small Enough to Jail mixes interviews, fly-on-the-wall moments with the Sung family, and courtroom dramatization in a great way. What does having all these styles add to the film? In other words, why isn’t it just all interviews, or all observational?

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Steve James: That’s a good question. To some degree, as sort of a core belief of mine, I’m not a purist when it comes to form. I love observational cinema, and earlier works of mine like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters are examples of more vérité-driven storytelling. With Abacus, we knew that we were going to get access and have the ability to follow the Sungs. We would have loved the opportunity to have followed the entire case that way. If the prosecution agreed and if the defense agreed and if the judge in the courtroom agreed, then maybe we would have done that. But it became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen. So, if the only vérité aspect of the film was going to be with the family, the question became how to tell the story fully if that was all we were going to have. So we kept pressing and got the prosecution to agree to interviews. But there was still the problem of how to dramatize the courtroom scenes. I didn’t want to use the standard technique of shooting an empty courtroom with talking heads narrating over it. Especially because this case is what can be referred to as a “paper case”, which is a kind of euphemism for “boring”.

Right, it’s all a bunch of mundane details and paper trails.

Steve James: Exactly. There’s no murders, no violence, nothing like that. So, we decided, pretty early on, to hire a courtroom artist at our expense to enhance and embellish the proceedings in the courtroom. So, in the end, I viewed it from a practical standpoint. We needed to throw in everything we could to tell the story, that there wasn’t going to be a straightforward, simple way to show everything.

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Yeah, I want to talk about those drawings a little more. I love the bright aesthetic to make the courtroom feel lively and vibrant, combined with text on the screen to focus our attention on the specific arguments that witnesses are making. Was this style of courtroom dramatization always the plan, or did it develop as you were going along?

Steve James: Well, when we were beginning we knew we would need to the judge and both the defense and prosecution for access to the courtroom. If all parties agreed, we could have actually just filmed the court proceedings. The judge was actually very receptive to the possibility of filming in the court, but neither the prosecution or the defense wanted cameras at the trial. So then the question becomes, how can you plan? Outside the courtroom, we’d be able to follow the Sungs, so that was easy. But how could we also convey their lives inside the courtroom? And we had to hire our own courtroom artist because the mainstream press was not covering this case, let alone paying for artists. So we found Christine Cornell, who is actually one of the bigger courtroom artists in New York. She’s worked on some big trials, and it became clear to me immediately that she did spectacular work. Not all courtroom artists are created equal, let me tell you, and I know because I had to look at a lot of them to select one for Abacus. Christine’s imagery also isn’t angled in a way that a camera could actually capture, either. This allows her imagination to take control over the images, almost allowing us to storyboard the trial like a feature film. That’s why you see angles in Abacus that artists could never actually get.

That’s great. Concerning the interviews, there’s almost a kind of interaction between some of the interviewees. It’s clear that you’ve asked Person A a question and then later asked Person B to respond to their answer. Did this just happen organically?

Steve James:: That happened more organically, and was kind of provocative. I’ll give you an example, with Neil Barofsky where he gave his jaywalking analogy. So we interviewed Neil and he made that analogy, and then later we interviewed Cyrus Vance Jr. (NY Country District Attorney) and told him about it. They know each other, so that’s why you here Vance say, “I respect Neil, but this isn’t jaywalking” like he does. A similar thing happened with the wallet analogy that Vance uses, where he talks about how if you steal $5 from his wallet, and then later return it, that’s still theft, that’s still larceny. Now, I don’t really follow that analogy, but when I told it to Jill Sung, she went above-and-beyond as you see in the film when she talks about how, using that analogy, Abacus didn’t just return the $5, they returned it with $3, $4, $5 back on top of it, so how is that larceny? I also think it comes natural from the two sides being so dug in. We didn’t actually interview the prosecution until the end of the trial, and we were surprised they were willing to do interviews then. We thought it was going to be an uphill battle. But that did present us a lot of opportunities to have this sort of back-and-forth. By that time, we’d also talked to a lot of other people in the community to get a sense of the feelings of racism and other reactions to the trial.

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Now I’d like to move past the technique and towards the themes of Abacus, but let me start with this related question: with a documentary – especially one with a contentious subject where each side is “dug in” as you said – is there a tension in your mind between expressing your viewpoint as a filmmaker and staying impartial and just trying to report the story?

Steve James:: Well, I think that even in the mainstream journalism that we consume daily there is not impartiality – there just isn’t. As much as I personally enjoy watching the New York Times go after Donald Trump, I also recognize that they have a point of view that leads to their desire to critique Donald Trump. So they will express that point of view, and Fox will do the same on the other side. I don’t want to equate them, because the New York Times and Fox News are not equal, but there are other more respectable counterparts on the other side like maybe the Wall Street Journal. Everyday journalism masks the point of view more and strives for impartiality and states it as a goal, but even they don’t get there.

Even in documentaries, it’s rare to aim to achieve that. Documentaries seem to more explicitly express points of view. For me, Abacus is rare in that I am so explicit in choosing sides as I do. It’s purposeful. After spending so much time with this story and watching it unfolding, it became clear to me that there were not two equal points of view in this story, that there was clear injustice. At the same time, and I don’t think this happens enough in documentary filmmaking, we made a concerted effort to express the case against the Sungs. That’s one of the reasons I was so happy to get the interview with Polly Greenberg (Chief of the D.A.’s Major Economic Crimes Bureau). And it even went all the way down to the jury. Once we knew that they spent a lot of time deadlocked at 8-4, we worked hard to make sure that we got one of the eight and one of the four and interviewed both of them. That unusual and strong point-of-view helped us, and at the same time we told the Sung family that we were going to be faithful to the facts as they were revealed, even if it wasn’t so good for them, and they agreed to that.

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So, I expected that you wanted to champion some ideas in Abacus, because there’s a lot in the film: the strength of family and community, the need for an easy scapegoat when people in charge make a mistake, and prejudice and discrimination from government agencies. What idea in Abacus do you want people to take away?

Steve James:: Well, I think any good film has many ideas. For Abacus, the first the jumps to mind is the unequal application of justice in America. And this story is not typical in America, because most families don’t have the means to protect themselves like the Sung family did. That kind of makes things even worse, because most of the time people will just plead guilty in an effort to reduce the sentence or hope that it will go away easier. For example, something like 98% of all indictments are pleaded out without even going to trial. I don’t believe that 98% of people who are indicted are guilty. I also think the film is an example of a family with the ability and courage to fight and go through a situation like this. It’s a story about resiliency and a portrait of a Chinese family that I think there are too few of. And judging from some of the feedback, people really appreciate this portrait, showing these people and this family in a three-dimensional and human way. That’s all important.

And finally, the fact that Abacus is still literally the only federal bank to be indicted for fraud in connection with the 2008 mortgage crisis. It’s important because Abacus is small, went beyond the basic level of their diligence and then took the transgressions incredibly seriously. And then to be accused themselves, that not only did they look the other way, but were actually complicit in the fraud? It boggled the mind. There was even an interview with Polly Greenberg where we asked her why she thought the Sung’s were guilty, and we couldn’t include it in the film because it was too convoluted. It was weird, like something out of a Law & Order episode. Something about a bunch of shrewd lawyers who knew exactly how the justice system would react so they knew they could exploit their bank and get away with it. But none of that makes sense, at least not outside of Law & Order. What would make sense is if they caught Ken and told him, “Look, you’re not being careful enough. You make us a lot of money, but we can’t have borrowers filing complaints and drawing attention to the bank. So be smarter”. Obviously, that didn’t happen either; they fired him – but at least that makes some sense.


Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema today.