Family, Business: documentarian Steve James talks about ‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’

by Andrew Parker

Renowned filmmaker Steve James has made some of the most noteworthy character based documentaries of all time. Hoop Dreams, Stevie, The Interrupters, and Life Itself are all generally regarded as masterful, nuanced, dramatic, and balanced looks at people trying to make their way in a complex, sometimes contradictory world. James’ latest film, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (which opens at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto this weekend) is no exception to the filmmaker’s overall preoccupation with personal narratives and magnetic personalities, but it also marks something that he hasn’t attempted before: a legal drama.

Since 1984, Abacus Federal Savings Bank in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown has catered to the unique banking needs of an often largely cash based culture that most larger banks could never hope to understand. It’s also a family run business, founded by Chinese-American and former lawyer Thomas Sung , a man who wanted to create a bank where people like him were treated as actual customers and clients rather than faceless depositors. The bank is run by Thomas’ daughters, Vera and Jill, but the octogenarian Thomas still acts as a figurehead for the local institution.

Like many banks and places of business, however, The Sungs hired a few bad employees, and in 2010 the family discovered a fraud was being perpetrated via their business. The Sungs were proactive. They investigated the matter both internally and via an independent third party. They fired the people involved in the fraud. They reported all of their findings to the proper authorities. On paper, the Sung family did everything by the book. The Manhattan DA’s office, however, didn’t see things the same way, despite Abacus holding a stellar financial record in every other regard. The Sung family, nineteen former employees, and Abacus Federal Savings were charged with hundreds of criminal offenses. They were the only bank to have such charges levied against them in the wake of the 2008-2010 subprime mortgage collapse – one where much larger banks committed much larger offenses and got bailed out by the government – and the only bank to be charged on such a level in Manhattan since 1991.

Perhaps seeing Abacus as a way to make an easy target symbolic of a larger problem, the DA’s office relentlessly pursued the Sungs across a lengthy trial, where the star witness for the prosecution was also the biggest committer of the frauds the bank had been accused of. District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and his lawyers probably didn’t expect a small bank like Abacus to spend the immense amount of time and millions of dollars it would take to fight the case, but they also probably didn’t account for the tenacity of the Sung family, most of whom were lawyers before they were bankers. Thomas Sung became a real life counterpart to Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey, and the trial became a true David and Goliath story.

For Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James, who’s no stranger to spending long periods of time documenting the day-to-day lives of his subjects, was granted intimate access to the family outside of the courtroom. What emerges from James’ film isn’t only an indictment of a broken American banking system, a look at an inconspicuously racist trial, and a testament to the righteousness of innocence, but also a warm, moving, and sometimes amusing look at familial togetherness.

We chatted with James via Skype earlier in the week to talk about the case against Abacus, his time with the Sung family, how this film differs from the rest of his filmography, and where he finds the patience to make such sweeping films about everyday human life.

This is not only a story about something that’s inscrutable to a lot of people – which is the inner workings of the banking system – but also a film where you as a filmmaker have to get to the heart of a family that means a lot to a community in New York’s Chinatown that a lot of outsiders might not understand. What was it like for you as a filmmaker to embed yourself in this world and this society outside of the Sung family?

Steve James: I think the key to it, first and foremost, was the Sung family, and particularly Thomas Sung. Just the fact that he was allowing us to film and tell the story of what they were going through and what the family was going through was the best passport you could have in order to get people to allow us to do as much filming in the community as we did. Also, I think Don Lee, who’s a community activist that you see in the film, was also a key. He’s truly, like Mr. Sung, someone who’s really revered, and he’s a significant person in the Chinatown community. All you have to do is walk around with him, and you get that. The fact that we were with him and with Thomas meant that people came to understand what we were doing, and that made a big difference.

Steve James

The Sung and Abacus Federal Savings Bank had already weathered a massive run on their bank following an employee who embezzled funds back in 2003, and now they’re in a much larger fight. Was there some hesitation on the part of the Sung family after having been negatively portrayed in the public light not once, but twice, and especially after the 2003 run on their institution?

Steve James: I think their feelings on what happened in 2003 is that stuff like this happens. They’re certainly not – by any stretch – the only bank that has ever had bad employees over their many years who have attempted to embezzle money or engage in fraud because banks are where the money is. The 2003 situation was the first time I think they ever encountered anything like that, and from their point of view, what was significant about that story was how a woman who worked for them took a million dollars and fled. They didn’t run from that, but they obviously had to deal with a real potential catastrophe for them because of the run on the bank. What was significant for the Sungs and for us in that story was that there proved to be an ultimate level of trust that Mr. Sung had within the community, and he was able to prevent that catastrophe from happening and get everyone to calm down. What he did was a lot like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, which we reference in our film, and that’s to step back and make sure that no one burns the bank down out of fear.

In this new case, they have discovered fraud and did what they knew to do, which was to report it. Then, on their own, and which was not required of them, they initiated their own third party investigation, and that resulted in the firing and departure of a few other employees. Then they were standing and ready to fully cooperate with the DA’s office to make sure there was no other fraud in their band, and only then did they find out that the DA’s office was targeting their management as being complicit. I think their feeling was, “What more could we have done to correct what has already been done, and this is profoundly unfair.” I think because of that, they were willing to allow us to tell their story. They thought they were completely innocent of what they were being charged with, and this was an injustice.

I like that you brought up that every company hires bad employees, but when you look at what happened at Abacus and compare it to what happened in the U.S. economic collapse from 2008 to 2010, there’s almost no comparison, especially when you think of how many “bad employees” there had to be at some of the larger banks that emerged from this period relatively unscathed, despite committing more heinous offenses. Was that parallel that was on your mind while telling this story, and did you question how much harder it would be to weed these “bad employees” out of a larger corporation?

Steve James: I think you raise an interesting point, but there’s definitely a difference with what was happening at the larger banks, and that was they were actively engaged in creating financial vehicles that were literally all about making as much money as possible. The level of fraud that was going on at the big banks wasn’t just one of scale because they were big banks, but it was also one of degree, meaning people doing everything they could to issue loans to people they knew were completely unqualified. It never mattered who they approved because they were then going to turn around and sell those loans off. It never mattered if they eventually crashed. That’s NOT what was going on at Abacus.

The level of fraud that was going on at Abacus, with the exception of Ken Yu, was of extremely petty variety. It was the kind of fraud that ultimately had nothing to do with the ability of the borrowers to pay off their loans, which is pointed out by the fact that Abacus had one of the lowest default rates for any bank in the country. Their default rate was 1/20th of what most banks in the country were at. So it’s not just a difference in scale, but also in degree, and in that regard, the bigger banks were much more willful at the management level at ignoring, encouraging, or turning a blind eye because they were making so much money.

Jill Sung, Vera Sung, and Thomas Sung (left to right)

I think one of the things that will shock viewers the most was that the Manhattan DA’s office – the biggest prosecuting attorneys in the biggest financial hub in North America and possibly the world – seemed to have such a narrow scope when it came to investigating bank fraud. Did you ever press harder on District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and ask him why his office never pressured any big banks on the scale that they prosecuted Abacus?

Steve James: I certainly asked Cyrus Vance why he went after this little bank as opposed to the bigger banks, and his answer’s in the movie. He says there was some behaviour by the bigger banks that was “less than ethical.” When he said “less than ethical,” I thought to myself, “Wow. That’s quite a euphemism for what went on at the big banks.” But then he just as quickly said that Abacus was guilty of that, too.

The truth is that when it came to the big banks in New York City and the crisis that nearly crashed the world economy, it was true that the feds were going to take that case on, and they would claim that jurisdiction, but Cyrus Vance, as the DA, was party to all that. I think he would have thought twice about taking on a Bank of America in New York City versus taking on something the size of Abacus, which he saw, most likely, as the kind of adversary that they could handle and handle pretty easily. I think the DA’s office was assuming that they would just plead out and never go to trial because it would be so expensive for a small bank to do that. Big banks would never do that, and they would never have to do that. The big banks were offered deals where they didn’t have to plead guilty to anything. It’s very revealing that Cyrus Vance wouldn’t make that same offer to Abacus. They said, “You can pay a fine, but you have to plead guilty to these felonies,” because he wanted that conviction. He probably assumed it would never go to trial because most times these cases never do.

Do you think this is a case where it was easier for the DA’s office because they could prove some things a lot easier than if they tried to take on a bigger target? I’m sure that plenty of viewers will see a prosecution witness like Ken Yu as less than reliable and kind of a joke, but from an attorney’s stand-point it’s hard to argue with your star witness being the biggest perpetrator of fraud from within the company being prosecuted. The smaller the fraud, the fewer people you need to prove the wrongdoing.

Steve James: Yes, and I think the actions of Ken Yu, which were indisputably fraudulent, still made him a perfect witness for the prosecution for some of the reasons you said. The fraud that was happening with a lot of the other employees at Abacus who were let go was of an extremely petty variety. It did not rise to the level where Ken Yu was with his bribes. I think that the DA’s office saw him as the star witness because he was the most egregious example of the fraud that went on, and he could easily prove what they saw as an easy case. What they did not anticipate was that Ken Yu was such an effective liar that he thought he get on the stand and tell a bunch of lies that would make the case even stronger, and that would make the DA’s job even harder instead of easier.

As a filmmaker who’s now making a film for the first time within the legal system, was there any way to prepare for how long the trial would end up being? Did you expect it to go as long as it did or was there ever a feeling that this could drag out for a really long time?

Steve James: It was a surprise to everyone on screen and off how long this trial went on. It was a five month trial for a case dealing with petty levels of fraud. There was this sense, though, that this wasn’t going to be over quickly just based on the pace of the trial. The lawyers always have a greater sense of that quicker than everyone else. That became clear really early on. The thing we did not anticipate, however, was the interminable amount of time to wait for a verdict. It felt like the Sungs and the lawyers were winning their case throughout, and when the verdict took as long as it did, that was a bigger surprise to everyone.

You tend to make films around noteworthy characters and people who have a lot of personality and charisma. At what point after meeting the Sungs did you think they would make for such a welcome and open family willing to let not just you, but also viewers they’ll never meet into what’s essentially their own private hell?

Steve James: They were very welcoming from the get-go, and I think it’s also partly because one of our producers, Mark Mitten, had been friends with the family for about ten years already when we began the film. He knew Vera socially, and he happened to know the family and got to know them over those ten years. I think there was already an initial level of trust that I don’t normally get when I step into situations where I’m dealing with people I don’t already have a history with. But, I also think my track record as a filmmaker helped, and once we started filming I was able to connect with the family in ways that were encouraging for all of us. I also think they were so willing to do this in part because it wasn’t so much a “look at us” story, but they saw this as an important story for their community that they felt so strongly about, and they were willing to set aside all reservations – including not knowing how it’s going to turn out – to make sure it gets told. They took the leap of making the film because it was important for them.

One of the things that I love about the film is that you get such complete access to this family, and much like most families, they talk about their feelings and debrief over these family meals and lunches, many of which you are privy to, and all of which end up giving the viewer as more information about the case and who they are as people as you would get from a standard interview with each of them on their own. What was it like to have the benefit of being around for moments like that?

Steve James: Oh, you’re for sure right about the value of those moments. This film doesn’t have as much verite in it as a lot of films that I have done had. We didn’t have access to film inside the courtroom or to talk to the prosecution and tell other stories, but certainly the most memorable aspects of the film are getting to see this family in more private moments to see how they were dealing with things. They really give a window into this family that is proud, courageous, funny, and that bickers a lot, too. This is who they are, and when you make documentaries, you live for those small, revealing moments that no script writer would ever think to write. If you said to a script writer to build a scene around Mr. Sung trying to eat his dry sandwich at lunch, while Chanterelle and Vera, his two daughters, are criticizing something he wrote while simultaneously trying to see that he has everything he needs to enjoy his sandwich, I think your writer would look at you funny and say, “What? What am I doing here?” (laughs) Those are the ways in which real life when you capture it properly surpass anything that fiction can offer.

A thread that I have noticed through a lot of the films that you have done is that you’re a filmmaker who seems to exhibit a great amount of patience to wait for a story to emerge in full. I guess I’m just wondering how you’ve been able to do that throughout your career.

Steve James: I don’t know. (laughs) It’s interesting to think of it as patience, but how I think of it is more about feeling so extremely lucky to be able to have that time to spend with subjects over a period of time, and for them to allow me and my colleagues in. Maybe that’s why I’m so patient or why people see me that way. Most of the films I have done, if not every film I have done, find me following people at a particularly significant moment in their lives.

With Hoop Dreams, of course, it was these two young boys and their families trying to make something of their lives through basketball in a bid to lift their lives up in some way. In a film like Stevie, he’s facing the possibility of going to prison for most of the duration of the film and questioning his guilt and his future. In a film like The Interrupters, you have these people who have done much bad in their neighbourhoods who are now seeking redemption in a helpful and courageous fashion. In Life Itself, we didn’t start off with this being the case, but it ended up being like that because it just so happened to be the last four months of Roger [Ebert]’s life, which was of great significance. In this film, we’re going through an entire court case.

I just feel lucky to be around people who are at important junctures in their lives. Nothing excites me more as a filmmaker or moves me more as a person than to be able to bear… well “bearing witness” isn’t the right term, but to at least be there and be a part of that in some way. I guess you could look at it as patience, but I don’t see it that way. Every moment of these films is a gift to me.

I guess you could say there’s some patience involved in getting the story, and certainly my wife would agree with you. (laughs) Especially when I’m in the middle of editing for months on end, she often says, “I don’t know how you do that. How do you possibly just keep working on the same thing over and over and over and over again?” And I can just say, “I dunno, but I love it.”

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