TIFF ’16: Steve James heads to court in “ABACUS”

The Life Itself director talks to realscreen ahead of the world premiere of his 'Frontline'-backed doc on a Chinese community bank ensnared in the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis.
September 9, 2016

One of the surprises in this year’s Toronto International Film Festival doc line-up was the news that Hoop Dreams director Steve James had a new feature.

The follow-up to his 2014 Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, ABACUS: Small Enough To Jail  tells the David vs. Goliath story of a small bank based in New York City’s Chinatown that became the only U.S. financial institution to face criminal charges for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

James spent a year following the family that owns and runs Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which was founded in 1984 by Thomas Sung to serve the city’s Chinese immigrant community. The Chicago-based filmmaker got wind of the case through Life Itself executive producer Mark Mitten, who is friends with Sung’s daughter Vera, and was surprised the mainstream press was largely ignoring the case.

“It struck me that this was a significant and important story and no one was paying attention to it,” he told realscreen.

Produced by James’ long-time collaborators at Kartemquin Films, Mitten Media and Julie Goldman‘s Motto Pictures, the film was backed by PBS news series Frontline and and ITVS. After debuting in Toronto, Abacus will screen at the New York and Chicago Film Festivals and air on PBS in 2017.

In addition to selling theatrical and remaining rights while at TIFF, James will speak during the TIFF Doc Conference on Sept. 14 to discuss the film and his wider career.

Realscreen caught up with James to chat about ABACUS ahead of the doc’s world premiere at TIFF this Sunday (Sept. 11).

What drew you to the story of the Sung family?
To me, what this case had to say was significant on a number of fronts. It had something to say about who, in fact, was criminally indicted and who wasn’t [after the financial crisis]. The story had something to say about immigrant communities in America and how they gain a foothold and become part of America in a way that the rest of us take for granted. 

The level of fraud that was alleged to be going on was, by and large, chump change compared to any typical fraud case where there’s usually a lot of money involved. This case involved home mortgages in the Chinese community and loan officers who weren’t even making six figures. It was just considered a small case and didn’t’ rise to the level of awareness to be considered worthy of a lot of coverage.

What was it like filming in New York’s Chinese community?
It’s not an easy community to penetrate. The only reason we were able to at all was because of the Sung family and the reverence that Mr. Sung, in particular, holds within that community. There was a feeling in that community that this was a miscarriage of justice and the fact that we were making a film about that trial put us in a position where people were more open to having us film.

It’s clear that in this film that we are telling the story from the vantage point of the Sung family. We certainly attempted to draw the prosecution into the story more. We reached out to them repeatedly to see if there was any way we could draw them in more purposefully than we were able to, but they weren’t interested. We did eventually succeed in getting interviews with key people like Polly Greenberg, the head of the economic crimes unit in the Manhattan DA’s office, as well as the DA himself, Cyrus Vance Jr. We went out of our way to find jurors, including a juror inclined to see the bank as guilty and a juror that wasn’t. This is a film with a point of view, but it’s a point of view that I hope is earned through real journalistic inquiry into why this case was brought.

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Steve James

Why did you decide to work with ‘Frontline’?
I have a history with ‘Frontline’ because The Interrupters was funded in part by ‘Frontline’ and ITVS. On that film, they were in very early on and I had a great working relationship with them. I think they do terrific work and I love the way they will occasionally deviate from their usual approach and work with an independent filmmaker on a project that looks very different than anything they would normally do. When I got into this project, I thought ‘Frontline’ would be an interesting partner because this is the kind of story you could imagine them doing.

Do you plan on doing outreach to Chinese communities as the film rolls out?
We hope to. We don’t have a budget to do such a thing, but we’re certainly going to do whatever we can to reach out to that community. We’re hoping that they will hear about the film and turn out to see the film. It’s one of the reasons we were excited to premiere in Toronto beyond the fact that it’s a great worldwide festival. We knew there was this very large and substantial Chinese community in Toronto.

This is also your first courtroom drama.
It was exciting to do a film that was very different for me. I’ve never done a courtroom film. We were able to get Christine Cornell to court for a few days to do illustrations that became the basis for how we told parts of the story. Courtroom illustrators aren’t able to get the angles that you see in the film. She was in court for a few days and that became the basis for us to realize those sequences in a fuller way.

What was it like working with the Sung family? They come off as quite affable people despite their circumstances.
That was one of the things that struck me about them. You clearly see their outrage and how upset they are by what they’re going through. But they are, by their very nature, an entertaining, warm and lively group. That made it a pleasure to work with them, but it also cuts against what you might expect. If you wrote this story as a piece of fiction, you would think of the besieged family. And that’s not their way. They believed so strongly in their innocence and didn’t feel like they had anything to hide in that regard. They welcomed us to do a film without knowing how this was going to turn out.

ABACUS: Small Enough to Jail premieres at TIFF on Sunday (Sept. 11) at  4 p.m. at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and screens again on Sept. 13 and 18. Visit the festival’s website for showtimes.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.