Q&A with “Hoop Dreams” Director Steve James on “Abacus” Documentary

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During the 2008 banking crisis, no large banks were indicated by the government. However, one small bank in NYC’s Chinatown was. Acclaimed director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), tackles the court case of the small, family-owned bank, while portraying the charming family in the middle of it—the Sungs—whose story had not been picked up by any mainstream media outlet at the time. How is it that the country’s 2,651st largest bank was the only one prosecuted? James chatted about why he felt compelled to make this documentary, the love and humor behind the Sung family, and how the filmmaking team was able to finally get the prosecution side to talk to them.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, a CAAM-funded documentary, airs on PBS’ award-winning program FRONTLINE on Tuesday, September 12, 2017. The documentary screened at CAAMFest 2017. NPR calls it “a compelling non-fiction thriller,” while The New York Times calls it “a classic underdog tale. Find out why a small bank mainly serving Chinese immigrants was the only US bank indicted for mortgage fraud related to 2008 financial crisis. The news came out today that the film will be adapted into a fictional film, directed by Justin Lin and Executive Produced by James.

—Momo Chang

What initially interested you in this story?

It was a story I knew nothing about, like a lot of people. No one was covering it in the mainstream media except in the Chinese media in New York. It was producer Mark Mitten who drew my attention to the story. He was friends with the Sung family going back 10 years.

He called me up one day and said there’s a crazy trial that’s about to start with this little bank in New York and they’re the only back to be criminally prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis. The more I heard about it from Mark, the more intrigued I became. We started filming when the trial was underway. Learning more about what the trial was about, I decided I wanted to make a film about it.

Were the subjects pretty open to speak to the media?

They were receptive to the idea of the film. That was due in large measure to their relationship with Mark. There was an immediate bond of trust there. Also, though, they clearly felt like this was a misscarriage of justice and that this had larger implications for them, for their community, for banking—and I think they felt a duty to participate despite not knowing how this would all turn out. They could have very well been found guilty. It was an indication of their faith in themselves, their courage and their conviction that they decided to go along from the start.

 

Filmmaker Steve James.

Filmmaker Steve James.

You mentioned that you had first heard about this family from producer Mark Mitten. Can you talk more what specifically made this a good documentary subject and what made this a good story to you?

There was one thing written prior to the trial: Matt Taibbi wrote in the introduction of his book called The Divide about the unequal application of justice in America. In the introduction, he talked about Abacus and the indictment. It was a great introduction to the story and to the larger issues—how is it that a small bank in Chinatown is singled out for prosecution connected to the 2008 crisis when they were in every respect the mirror opposites of the big banks. They themselves discovered fraud, reported fraud and investigated fraud on their own and fired people. And they didn’t do any of the subprime loans or credit default swaps that big banks did that nearly brought down the world economy. Yet the DA in New York brought this case against them and tied them to the 2008 crisis.

Once I met the Sungs, I was very impressed with them. I was impressed with their integrity and their beliefe that this was wrong, and their willingness to be followed in this film which also said something—they were willing to hold themselves up to scrutiny. That told me something about their innocence, frankly. This was not being covered in the mainstream media. And I don’t think guilty people do that. And so it felt like an important story to tell. And once you meet this family, they’re a pretty incredible group. They’re both loving of each other and very strong-willed. And I certainly was captivated with them from the start and thought they’d be great subjects for a film.

Were there any challenges in making the film? How did you get access to people to talk to you on camera?

Once we started to film, before I even got to New York, we tried to get permission from the prosecution and defense team to film in the courtroom. The judge has to be open to it. What was interesting was the judge was open to it, but neither the prosecution nor the defense were. And then it was clear the prosesution would not allow us to document anything. [New York County DA] Cyrus Vance, Jr. declined all interview attempts. So we’re going in to tell a story that’s based around a trial, and we had extremely limited access. What we had was the one bit of access I would’ve wanted most, which was to the the Sung Family. So we hired a really terrific courtroom artist named Christine Cornell. We had to come up with strategies.

When it came to finally getting the prosecution side of the story, that came about because of strong-willed determination by our team once the trial was over.We eventually got DA Cyrus Vance, Jr. and Polly Greenberg, who was the head of economic crimes at the DA’s office when this trial happened, and jurors. We were unable to get any cooperation from the DA’s office prior to the trial, and of course you can’t interview jurors during a trial. It also was helped because by that time, FRONTLINE, PBS’ news and investigative strand, was partner on the film. Their reputation and their clout helped get us the prosecution’s side of the story. It was incremental. We got Polly Greenberg, who eventually left the office. She felt strongly about the case, and we thought great, we will hear from her, with conviction, the prosecution side of the case.

What surprised you the most about making this documentary?

I was continually surprised at the case being tried against them. It just seemed so weak. I was also surprised, just in a very wonderful way, by spending the time with the family and seeing their dynamic. If I had a stereotype about Chinese American families, or Chinese families, it was probably that the father is the patriarch and the boss and then no one dares really disagree with him. Especially if he’s a lawyer and he started a bank. Nothing could be further form the truth in this story. He is revered by his family, and that comes through loud and clear in the film, but he also has strong-willed daughters, with strong opinions, who are lawyers themselves. It was refreshing to me to see this family and to witness their dynamics—both the love and commitment toward each other, and the bickering and how they were trying to cope with the stakes and the pressure. Being able to see that is always surprising and one of the reasons I love doing documentaries. That’s the part you can’t anticipate. The Sung family was both quite entertaining and quite inspiring.

Your stories from your documentaries are often about lives not heard about in mainstream media, or folks who are stereotyped in media. What draws you to tell these stories? 

I’ve always been attracted to people’s stories who are relegated to the fringe of American society, whether it’s because they’re Black, or poor, or both, or any group besides white. And I’ve even told a story about a poor white family in a documentary called Stevie. I’m interested in people’s lives that are relegated fringe of society and not valued, and not oftentimes seen as worthy of a story to be told. I’ve also had a fascination with the way race plays out in American life. That goes back to my youth growing up in Virginia in a community that was split up Black and white. That drew race to my attention in a way that made me curious, concerned and interested. A lot of my work tends to be about that as well.

Is there anything else you’d like to add about the upcoming PBS FRONTLINE broadcast or the film itself?

One of the things is it’s been through the festival circuit. People heard about the film and what it was about, and based on that it was a story they wanted to see. But after they’ve seen it, we heard time and time again, they said they were both equally infuriated and entertained. They didn’t expect the film to be as funny and engaging in that way given its subject matter. That’s all about the Sungs, this wonderful family that’s at the center of this. That’s just something important for people to know. This is a very human story. It’s not just a story about a trial about a bank in the 2008 crisis.