Interview: Abacus Documentary Director Steve James

Abacus: Small Enough To Jail
is a documentary, but it starts out with a scene from Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life. The film, about good-natured small town banker George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart, of course) turns out to be a very appropriate comparison for Abacus. That’s why director and documentarian Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) couldn’t resist putting it in. It is a favorite film of Thomas Sung, founder of the Abacus Federal Savings Bank of New York City. Thomas Sung is a classic George Bailey type- hard working, passionate, selfless, and a family man above all else. He’s also like Bailey in that he’s been unfairly targeted by the powerful- in this case the New York City District Attorney’s Office, who brought indictments against Abacus in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. As the film stresses over and over again, but still feels shocking each time- they were the only bank to have charges brought against them in that crisis.

Steve James is a Chicago filmmaker who has made some of the more revered documentaries of the last thirty years. Roger Ebert called Hoop Dreams one of the greatest films ever made about American life, and named it as his top film of the 1990’s. James would in a way return the favor, turning the tables to document Roger and his family in his 2014 film Life Itself, before Ebert passed away after a long battle with thyroid cancer.

For his latest film, Abacus: Small Enough To Jail, James returns to exploring the impact of social problems on the lives of resilient Americans, leaving Chicago for the bright lanterns of Chinatown, New York City. It’s one of James’ shorter films, clocking in at just under 90 minutes. It’s no less powerful, coming out at an all too relevant time, where immigrant communities all over the country are under more intense scrutiny and judgment than ever.

I got the chance to talk with Steve on a hot summer day over the phone. We discussed the legacy of Hoop Dreams, how he knows when he has found a new film subject, the role that strong women play in his films, and what Documentarians can still offer in the age of the iPhone.

Andy: Do you remember when you first learned about the Abacus case? What was your reaction?

Steve James: Yes I do remember. I heard about it from one of the producers, Mark Mitten. Mark was friends with the family and had been for ten years, and they had told him that they were about to go to trial in this fraud case, and that the DA of New York was saying they were connected to and partly responsible for the 2008 financial crisis. And it just seemed ridiculous. He had known the family for a while and found them to be upstanding citizens. I didn’t know anything about this case because, it turns out, even though I read the New York Times with some regularity, no one was really reporting on it in New York. The only person who had really written of any substance on it at that time was Matt Taibbi. In his book The Divide, the introduction was written about Abacus, and was written and published before the case went to trial. He used that story as an example of the thesis of his book, about the unequal application of justice in America. So I agreed to to go to New York and spend a few days filming with the Sung family, to see if they were game.

A: So at what point does a subject cross the line from an area of interest to an actual subject of a documentary for you?

SJ: In this case it was a pretty easy decision. After we got to New York and spent some time with them, I immediately fell in love with the family. Then learning about the particulars of the case and how it came to be just made the case more infuriating and important. It is truly an important story for them to have the distinction of being the only bank in the wake of the crisis to be criminally indicted and accused of being a part of that. When I met the family and took a measure of them as individuals, what they were going through, what they had built, and what was at risk to be lost, it was not a hard decision; even though we found out pretty early on there was no way we could film in the court room, and we were not going to have access to the prosecution. We managed to get some of that after the trial, which is where those interviews come from. There were a lot of limitations to how we could tell the story, but it really didn’t matter. The fact that we could have access to the family and track their experience of the trial, was enough for me to proceed.

A: Speaking of portraying the prosecution, as a viewer I felt fascinated about the inclusion of them- I couldn’t help but see them as the bad guys in the story, yet your style is so nonjudgmental. So as a director, with a connection with the subjects, and filming the prosecution, do you see your film as having “good guys” and “bad guys?”

SJ: Well I think in this case there is the right side to be on and the wrong side, for sure. I do not believe that Cyrus Vance (the prosecuting attorney) believed that the bank was innocent, nor was he callous enough to go after them simply because he was looking to nail a bank and tie it to the 2008 crisis. He’s not corrupt in that way. Yet I do think the desire to land a bank and tie it to the crisis was important to them, and it clouded their judgment of the facts to this case, and caused them to proceed with a case that didn’t really have the merit. They probably assumed like most institutions and individuals in a situation like this, that Abacus would cave and plead, and it would never get to trial. But in that way they miscalculated.

A: Right- they had no idea what kind of a sleeping monster they were waking.

SJ: Right- the Sungs are a family of lawyers. And unlike the big banks, the DA didn’t come to them and say “if you pay this fine, it will all go away.” The offer the Vance office made to the family was, to pay a fine, but you had to plead guilty. That is very revealing. They wanted to be able to say “we did this.” The bank never disputed that fraud was happening- they were the ones that discovered it, reported it, and took very clear steps to prevent it from happening again. The issue at trial wasn’t “did fraud happen?”- yes it did. The issue was, did the bank management condone and even encourage or direct the fraud (fraud that was going on at low levels with certain loan officers)? It seems plainly obvious to me that they were innocent.

A: The Sung family seem like the kind of characters you often observe in your films- is there a through line thematically connecting the protagonists in your films? 

SJ: Well I think that my films are about people who find themselves at significant junctures in their lives- for the guys in Hoop Dreams, it’s “will basketball lift them out of poverty, get them to college and help their families live a better life?” With The Interrupters it’s these former convicts, murderers and drug dealers who are trying to do work as a kind of redemption for the bad they have done in their lives- and often putting themselves in harm’s way to do that. With the Sung family you have these people facing potential shame as a family and facing the possible end of their bank.  The other through line is that there have been a lot of strong women in my films- the mothers in Hoop Dreams, Ameena Matthews in The Interrupters, Chaz (Roger Ebert’s widow) in Life Itself. And of course a family full of women in this film. For some reason I have landed on stories where women end up being very significant, and having a kind of powerful presence- maybe that just reflects the world we live in, but either way it ends up in my films. 

A: You employ a style of Cinema Verite in your films- and at a time when our access to technology has made everyone a kind of documentarian. So what can you offer to the world now that ordinary citizens with their phones cannot?

SJ: Well, documenting an event is one thing, and you’re right there’s much more widespread documentation going on than there used to be. They often serve a tremendous function of capturing things that really make a difference- but shooting something with an iPhone is not the same as telling a story. What we in the documentary community do is more than just capture something that’s happening, however important it may be- we shape that something into a story that tells the matter more fully and completely, and can be a lasting testament to the people whose lives are being explored.

A: I am sure that everyone asks you if you keep in touch with William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two young boys from Hoop Dreams– but I couldn’t help myself. How are they doing?

SJ: They’re doing well. Arthur is still in the Chicago area, and he continues to do work with a little foundation he created with the help of his dad Bo. He speaks to youth about issues of school and dreams. William moved his family to San Antonio, TX a few years ago to escape the Chicago violence, and things are going well for them too. He’s got kids in college and is still married to Catherine, who was his girlfriend in Hoop Dreams.

A: Earlier you said that Hoop Dreams was asking the question of whether something like basketball could lift those kids up on the path to something else- and it seems like your film has ended up being the thing that has given them a platform and made a big positive impact in their life.

SJ: Yeah- they have no regrets about being in Hoop Dreams…many good things came out of it for them and they remain thankful for that. There are tough things too, with the notoriety- William in particular would just as soon not have people come up and talk to him about it.
Abacus: Small Enough To Jail debuts at Ritz At The Bourse on Friday, June 16th. The Sung family will be in attendance at the screenings through opening weekend.

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

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