Thomas Sung stands in the lobby of Abacus Federal Savings Bank. Director Steve James and cinematographer Tom Bergmann frame the shot. (Sean Lyness)

Inside the Making of “Abacus” with Director Steve James

September 12, 2017
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by Patrice Taddonio Assistant Director of Audience Development

Steve James is no stranger to telling the stories of people and communities facing challenging circumstances.

Over the course of his decades-long career, the iconic documentary filmmaker behind Hoop DreamsLife Itself and The Interrupters has chronicled the story of two African-American high school students hoping basketball will help them transcend poverty, legendary film critic Roger Ebert’s defiant response to his cancer diagnosis, and the lives of former street criminals in Chicago who place themselves in the line of fire to stop violence in their communities.

His newest documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, continues that thread.

Abacus chronicles the story of the Sungs, a Chinese-American family whose Abacus Federal Savings Bank was the only U.S. bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to the 2008 financial crisis.

“I’m always surprised at the way people handle conflict in their lives,” says James. “A lot of the films that I’ve made over the years have just happened to take place at pivotal junctures in the lives of people, and I’m fascinated by how people navigate that.”

In addition to chronicling the New York district attorney’s case against the bank and the Sungs’ efforts to clear their name, Abacus also tells a bigger story about what James calls “the unequal application of justice in America.”

Drawing on interviews with prosecutors, jurors, defense lawyers and the Sung family themselves, the film asks tough questions about why Abacus — the 2,651st largest bank in the country at the time of its trial, serving an immigrant population — was brought to trial while the biggest banks on Wall Street avoided charges altogether.

Ahead of the broadcast premiere of Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, FRONTLINE spoke with James about why he was drawn to this story, his filmmaking process, and what he hopes viewers will come away with.

This is a transcript of a conversation held on Aug. 30, 2017. It has been edited for length and clarity.

As Abacus: Small Enough to Jail makes clear, compared to other stories related to the financial crisis, there’s been relatively little mainstream media attention to this case. How did you learn about this story in the first place, and why did you decide to commit to it as a documentary film?

I learned about Abacus and the Sungs from producer Mark Mitten, who I’ve worked with on and off over the last 10 years. When the case against them was about to go to trial in early 2015, he reached out to me and explained the details. I of course didn’t know anything about it because there was next to nothing in terms of coverage. But we decided to head to New York at the beginning of the trial for a few days to get a better sense. I decided at the end of that initial shoot that it made sense to go forward with making a film.

First of all, there was the story itself — the fact that they were the only U.S. bank to be criminally indicted and now were going to trial. Then, there were the particulars of how they had discovered the fraud themselves, reported it and initiated their own internal investigation, and been very cooperative, until they realized they were the target of the investigation. It all seemed kind of just unbelievable. But I think the part that sealed it for me, clearly, and made me want to do it, was meeting the family — taking my measure of them as people, and their absolute belief that they were innocent. Everything about them made me think that there’s a story there.

It’s so interesting that in this case there are lawyers on all sides — including in the family whose bank is on trial. Were the Sungs open to you from the start? How did you build the sort of trust that plays out in the film in candid, intimate scenes with the family as the trial unfolded?

I think they agreed to do this for larger reasons than just that their family was on trial, and they felt that maybe in some ways this could help clear their name. I think they felt, really, that their community was on trial, as Don Lee, the activist, says in the film at one point. There was a larger purpose in agreeing to the film and a larger purpose in defending the bank. I think all of those things contributed to them being willing to let us in in the way that they did.

Speaking of the Chinese-American community, this film is a vivid window into New York City’s Chinatown. Had you spent much time immersed in the community there before making this film?

We were learning as we went. That’s the way I have always approached the films I’ve made. In this case, we didn’t have the time, given when we entered the process the trial was getting underway. But there are other filmmakers who will go and spend many, many months in a community before they ever bring a camera and start filming. I have profound respect for that approach – I have not done that, and part of it, honestly, I’m not joking, is I’m too impatient to want to get filming! And I always feel like the times when you go and you’re not prepared to film, things happen that are important and you would have missed it. I don’t like that feeling.

But I also have another aspect to this that I feel works for me, which is to have a small crew, to develop a kind of rapport with your main subjects, and to not treat filming as some big deal: “Oh, we’re making a movie!” I do feel like to some extent when you go and you spend a lot of time with people, with this intent on introducing the camera later, you’re actually inflating the significance of that camera in their lives. You’re saying, OK, now we’re graduating to bringing the camera. My approach has always been to not make a big deal out of any of it. People are always going to have a period where they have an adjustment to having a camera around, and the sooner we get past that and achieve a level of comfort, the better. I don’t feel like spending a lot of time without the camera necessarily aids that process for me.

“People are always going to have a period where they have an adjustment to having a camera around, and the sooner we get past that and achieve a level of comfort, the better.”

In addition to the Sungs’ story and the viewpoint of the Chinatown community, the perspectives of the prosecution and the New York County District Attorney’s office are well represented in the film. What was the process of working to gain access on that side like?

The risk in this from the start was, it became clear very early that we were not going to be allowed in the courtroom, and that the prosecution team was not giving us access at all — not during the trial, and maybe never. The district attorney, Cyrus Vance, Jr., wouldn’t initially agree to go on camera. Even the defense lawyers were skittish about us filming during the trial, which I was surprised at. But they told us that once it goes to the jury and we have a verdict, that they would cooperate, so we knew we had that going. We had no idea, though, if Vance’s office would ever come around to being in the film.

The true key to this was producer Nick Verbitsky, who came on board once FRONTLINE became involved, and who knew the landscape of the financial crisis very well. He landed an interview with Polly Greenberg, who was chief of the major economic crimes bureau at the DA’s office at the time of the trial. She still felt so strongly that the DA’s office had been right to prosecute the Sungs — we thought, well this is great that she will speak passionately to that. Then, he landed interviews with two jurors—including one who was a holdout juror. I think that helped with Vance’s office.

But I think another key to this, frankly, was simply that FRONTLINE was now a partner. The association with FRONTLINE, the imprimatur of what FRONTLINE means in terms of integrity and clout … I think that those factors all made a difference in finally getting Vance to come around and agree to an interview.

The courtroom scenes themselves were so important to the film and to the story, but the fact that you couldn’t film them must have posed a real storytelling challenge. How did you decide to take the approach that you took in the film, drawing on courtroom sketches and audio?

We realized pretty early on that it would be good to get a courtroom artist into the trial, and that that would form the backbone for how we visualized that story. I’m really pleased with how it worked out. It helped that we got the best courtroom artist in New York City, Christine Cornell. I pay attention more to courtroom illustrations now because of this film, and hers really are works of art. And as far as production and how to visualize it, we didn’t confine ourselves to the typical angle of a courtroom illustrator which is to sit in the gallery. We took the liberties of having her go everywhere, in a sense, visually, and really treat it as if we were shooting it as a film.

Some people, hearing at a surface level about this film, might say, “OK, we’re talking about the 2008 financial crisis here. What lessons does this story hold for right now?”

You know, a lot of people look back on 2008 with some bewilderment and even anger, like “Why didn’t those banks get prosecuted?” FRONTLINE has done its share of great reporting on that whole crisis. But I think it helps to see the other side of it, where this one, small bank was singled out. And I think that story has relevance today, given that no justice was ever brought as it related to the bigger banks. The other thing is that a lot of economists remain concerned that what caused the collapse in the first place hasn’t been solved. Not only were the big banks not prosecuted coming out of that crisis, they were not regulated in a way to ensure that we’re not going to have more of these problems.

“Not only were the big banks not prosecuted coming out of that crisis, they were not regulated in a way to ensure that we’re not going to have more of these problems.”

Prior to the FRONTLINE broadcast, Abacus had a robust run on the festival circuit and is earning Oscar buzz. What has it been like to see this film go out into the world on this journey, and to hear the reactions from audiences?

I think of all the films I’ve done, this one is right up there in terms of enjoying watching it with an audience. You feel their engagement, you feel their outrage, you feel their anger, you feel their admiration for the family — and they are on the edge of their seats. You can feel the tension as it winds down to the jury and the deliberation: what is going to be the outcome of this story? That’s the kind of thing that can happen in a film like this because it’s not a well-known story at all. It’s not like when you watch the O.J. documentary … You know how that’s going to end! It doesn’t diminish the film at all, but one thing you do know is how it’s going to end.

We’ve also had so many people come up afterwards to express their thanks for us telling what they realize now is an important story. And we’ve had a lot of Chinese-American viewers, and other Asian-American viewers, come up and say, “Thank you for this portrait of this family — there aren’t enough of these stories.” We’ve heard that time and time again at screenings.

In terms of what people who watch the documentary come away with, are you hoping for those same reactions?

Absolutely. And a greater appreciation of some of the struggles of the justice system, particularly for non-white communities. I think that this really is a story of the unequal application of justice in America.  What separates it from many stories of people who find themselves in that situation is that the Sungs are not poor. In this case, you have a family that has the wherewithal to defend themselves and the will to defend themselves. I think that there’s a lot to be taken from the film in seeing the fight that they put up on their behalf, and on their community’s behalf.

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