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Vera, Jill, and Thomas Sung in ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL. Photo: Kartemquin Films.
FILM ARTICLE

A Master Crafter: ABACUS Director Steve James Demystifies the Documentary Process

A documentary titan delves into his latest effort, a timely work about maintaining pride in the face of government persecution.

Few have advanced the narrative-driven documentary farther than Steve James, the legendary filmmaker who remains one of American cinema’s most reliable portraitists, capable of seeing the most marginalized corners of our country and finding the most dexterous and transfixing visual language with which to convey these worlds, free of parameters and abundant with empathy.

James lends his adroit and compassionate touch to this month’s Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which chronicles the shocking battle between the family-run Abacus Federal Savings Bank, the 2,651st largest bank in the country, and the U.S. government, which indicted the federally-charted institution in 2012, making it the only bank to be prosecuted during the 2007-2008 U.S. financial crisis. Abacus quickly reveals itself, in true Jamesian fashion, as a work capable of restoring dignity and heroism to bank chairman Thomas Sung, his wife Hwei Lin, and their daughters Chanterelle, Heather, Jill, and Vera, the latter two of whom hold high-ranking positions in their their father’s business, which has been laudably serving New York’s Chinatown community since 1984.

I met James this week at the Museum of Chinese in America on the outskirts of Chinatown for a wide-ranging conversation about the infuriating and inspiring Abacus, our country’s ongoing pattern of injustice, and which of his films he wishes more people knew.

What spurred your interest in the Sung family’s legal battle and then your involvement in bringing their struggle to the screen?

It’s all kind of intertwined. Mark Mitten, one of the producers, knew the Sung family and had been friends with them for over ten years. And it was really through him that I found out about the story because, frankly, no one was writing about it here in New York. Some sporadic articles appeared here and there. A number of media outlets was there for the indictment because that was a spectacle. The New York Times was there, had a picture, an article: “Bank Indicted for Fraud.” But the New York Times didn’t do another story until the verdict, which was three years later. So there were little pieces done in the mainstream, English-language media. But, otherwise, I wouldn’t have known anything about it. So Mark called me up and said, “I know this family. They’re going through this crazy thing. They’re being held up as connected to the 2008 mortgage crisis. They’re the only bank being criminally indicted. The trial’s about to start.” And I was like, “What?” He said, “And I know these people. They’re good people. I think they’re innocent.” All of that was intriguing. And then when I did some initial shooting and spent some time with [the Sungs], I was so compelled by [them]. They’re this remarkably interesting, very proud family. And I just decided to do it.

Were they immediately onboard with the idea of being filmed?

They were pretty much immediately onboard and I think that’s due to the fact that Mark had this long-standing relationship with them. They saw the virtue of a film being made about what they went through. And not from the standpoint of getting their moment in the sun. They were, frankly, appalled at what they were going through. But I think they saw the greater significance of what was going on, and they felt so strongly about their innocence. They felt that this was an important story and people should hear about it. And their trust in Mark, their having known him for so many years, really made that possible. And when they met me, they… didn’t dislike me. [Laughs]

So many of your films have captured individuals during incredibly decisive and precarious periods in their lives, and Abacus is certainly no exception. I’m continually amazed at the ease with which you enable your subjects to reveal themselves with such candor and trust. In this case, how did you make each member comfortable enough to be him or herself in front of the camera, especially amid these distressing circumstances?

I don’t know that I make them at ease, but there are certain strategies that I have in all my films, when it comes to the way I approach filming, that I think help. One is I try to not make it a big deal, what we’re doing, because, frankly, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this. And I’m really clear with them about it. It’s been true of virtually everything I’ve done, but especially true here, which is we didn’t have Frontline involved when we were shooting [the Sungs] going through the trial. Mark was basically bankrolling our filming and I wasn’t getting paid. We just kind of did it because we felt there was a really important story here. So we worked very small. I always love to work small. And I tried to approach it as if there’s no big deal here, we’re just doing this thing. And I think that helps.

I also tell [subjects], “You’re going to get a chance to see this before it’s ever done. I can’t give you editorial control and you have to understand that. But I promise you that I will take your response to the film very seriously.” And I’ve changed things in the films I’ve done over the years, as a result of that process. I’ve also dug in my heels and said, “Nope, I can’t change that.” But I let them watch it beforehand because I owe that to them. And I think that gives people a certain kind of comfort. I read sometimes that filmmakers say their subjects showed up at the premiere and saw the film for the first time. And that kind of horrifies of me. I think, Really? You owe them that.

I also me clear with them that I don’t expect to film everything. It may be slightly paradoxical on the face of it, but it allows subjects to feel like they have some sense of control over this thing, that they can say “no” and you will respect it. I say, “I may try to talk you out of it. I’m human. But if you say ‘no,’ it’s ‘no.’” The more control and agency people feel in this process, the more willing they are, if they like you and believe in what you are doing, to give more up and be open.

I work with people that are enjoyable to be around. You need to have a kind of rapport with your subjects. They need to like to spend time with you. And if they don’t like you or the people you work with, they’ll find reasons not to do it. And I guess the last piece of it is that I film people who are at a crossroads in their life, in various ways. And that also contributes to it because they have something going on in their lives that is way more significant than our little film and takes a lot of their attention and energy. So we sometimes become — and the Sungs have said this — a kind of comfort to them. We’re there. We’re interested. We’re a sounding board. We are there because we care about what they’re going through and, in a weird sort of way, that becomes something almost therapeutic for the subjects.

The Sungs appear pretty generous with the access they afforded the production and certainly don’t seem afraid to show some of their more combative intrafamily interactions during the case. But I’m curious if there was ever a point where they drew the line on what could be captured.

It’s funny. Sometimes you find out these things after the fact. I’m sure if you asked the Sungs if there were some meetings they had that they just did not want the filmmakers there for, they would say, “Sure.” And they didn’t tell us. And I’ve had that happen, where you find out well after the fact that [the subjects] did this and you’re like, “What?” And they go, “Yeah, exactly, that’s why we didn’t tell you.” So you never get everything. A lot of people have asked if the daughters are married or in relationships because [they] don’t see that. It’s like, well, at the time we were filming, Vera and Chanterelle were not in relationships. Jill is married with two kids. Heather, who is just more of an interview person and is not there as much, is married with kids. They didn’t want their family lives to be a part of this. Jill was concerned about her children being in this film about this whole tumultuous thing. And, believe me, I tried to talk her into it. It wasn’t like I wanted to spend a lot of time there, but I wanted to see what some of the impact of all this might be on the family. And that would have been a nice thing to have in the film — but we didn’t get it. [Jill] was just very clear about not wanting to do that.

One of the film’s most compelling if briefer portraits is of Hwei Lin, the family’s matriarch, who is never on screen for too long but proves to be such an affecting and also humorous presence whenever she appears.

She steals the movie.

What was her overall involvement like in the film?

When we began this process, one of the daughters said to us, “I don’t know if mom really wants to be in this.” The trial freaked her out so completely that she hardly ever came because it was just so distressing. And so the idea of a film on all this… she just didn’t know if she could do it. I said that it was fine. And this is of course what you do when you’re a documentary filmmaker. I said, “That’s fine, but I’d love to at least meet her and maybe at some point we can just interview her, only? We don’t have to be around her that much but an interview would be great to just hear from her.” And eventually she agreed to the interview, which we did. And we got along really well. I think she enjoyed the interview because she got a chance to vent. Again, there’s that therapeutic aspect to it. Between that and the fact that she’s hilarious, we really wanted her in the movie. So she’s in the movie, but on her own terms. And I think that was key. She felt some sense of control about it. I would have liked to film more with her and Thomas at their home in Connecticut. We did some filming there, not much. But she didn’t want to.

We filmed her in the park going for a walk, which we really had to convince her to do because she was so nervous that she was gonna run into friends. And she tells this story about how, on that day, she was so glad that hardly anyone was in the park and then she saw [a woman] she knew. And the woman came up to her and asked, “What’s going on?” And she lied to them and said we were shooting a Christmas video for them. She didn’t want to admit what the film was about and that was the anxiety she had around all of this. You feel that in the movie, along with her tremendous sense of humor. Both of those things were important to get into the film, her humor but also the anxiety that Mr. Sung, the stoic in him, hides so well, even as this was tearing at them.

How did you ensure that each family member received enough time and focus within the film? Was this primarily an editing concern?

You definitely don’t want to cut someone out of the film completely. In this case, that would have been a really bad decision, period. So you do try to be sensitive to that, when people give you their time. On the other hand, you have to make a film that works. You can’t be overly sensitive to that. I have had situations, not this one but over the years, where people are in the film less than they thought they were going to be. And it was kind of distressing to them and I’ve had to deal with them. But you have to make sure that what’s in the film belongs in the film and you’re not just putting it in the film because you’re trying to be nice. I’ve had no big battles with that over the years. In this case, I didn’t have a battle at all because they were all so interesting and unique.

By the end of the film, it’s painfully clear that the Sung family’s trial has come to reflect, on a larger and much more publicized scale, what Don Lee [a community activist featured in the film] refers to as “damage done to the community.” I have never seen Chinatown depicted so prominently in contemporary cinema. It isn’t just a backdrop, as it is in most movies, mainly narrative ones. Did you always intend to make this deeply-rooted cultural-communal portrait in addition to the more intimate familial study that dominates the film?

We really wanted to try to get into the character of Chinatown and the sense of the community as a place, but also the bank’s place within that community. That was in our minds fairly early on and we just looked for opportunities to do that. The only reason it works at all is because of Thomas Sung. People knew we were doing this film about what they were going through. They knew we were sympathetic to what they were going through. And that makes all the difference in the world. Over the years, people have frequently said to me, “You do films in the black community…” and other communities that I am are clearly not of or from but which I have been able to achieve some level of intimate access to. And they ask, “How does that happen?” And there are a lot of reasons and a lot of things you do, some of which I was talking earlier about. But, first and foremost, it’s because the people you’re following bring you there. And they bring you there in a way that then allows others to welcome you in as well. That’s the A-number-one way that happens. To walk around Chinatown with Thomas Sung...

He looks like the mayor, almost.

Exactly. You feel the palpable love and respect for him that’s there. And also Don Lee was important. Following him around was a trip because everyone knows Don Lee. And the fact that we were with [him] and he was a part of this made a big difference.

The film’s sympathies unquestionably fall in favor of the Sung family, but I was really intrigued and even kind of amused by the interviews with the opposition, particularly prosecutor Polly Greenberg and District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who both look so willing to talk about this case, even as they seem to unwittingly dig their own graves with each unflattering testimonial. How did their somewhat unexpected inclusion in the film come about?

It wasn’t easy. We started from the get-go trying to get the prosecution into the film. From day one, we tried to see if we could interview Cyrus Vance while the trial was going on. And his office said, “No, no, no. He doesn’t comment on ongoing trials.” And we said, “Okay, well, can we get anyone? Even the public relations person. Someone. Anyone.” And they said no. It then became clear that we weren’t going to get any sort of access to the DA’s office or the prosecution during the trial. It happened after the trial was over. Given the verdict, I thought, Well, we’ll never get them now. But it turned out that we did. And it was due to the incredible efforts of a co-producer, Nick Verbitsky, who came to us when Frontline got involved, which was after the trial. He’s a New Yorker who knows the landscape of financial crime and had worked on a number of Frontline films in that community. So he was well-versed, which helped a lot. The Frontline imprimatur helped a lot. It helped as a sign of respect. It also helped as a sign of intimidation, a little bit… Well, maybe not intimidation. But turning independent filmmakers down for this little film they’re making is one thing. Turning Frontline down for something that’s going to be on Frontline is a different order of “declining to comment.” That really helped with Cyrus Vance. With Polly, she had left the office by the time we had gotten to her and felt more freedom to talk. And I think she felt angry about how the verdict had gone and wanted to have her say. And we were like, We want you to have your say! And I think we were completely fair to them.

If you look at Cyrus Vance’s comments in the film, you will see that he has the longest, most intact testimonies where we don’t even edit him that much. I really did not want to be open to a charge that we had taken his words and manipulated them in ways to make him say or infer things that he did not mean. And I think this film is iron-clad, bulletproof on that front. And he reveals himself, the more he talks. Frontline’s involvement enabled us to go through a vetting process that most documentary filmmakers never go through. There was a whole vetting process on what we were putting in this movie so that we could stand behind it and support it, and it’s something most documentary films don’t have. I did another film that was on Frontline, The Interrupters, and I didn’t do a vetting process for that because of the kind of film that was. This is a very different type of animal because of the trial. There were clear adversarial sides to this.

I’ve seen Abacus twice now. The first time was at the New York Film Festival, before the election, at which point the film felt, for me, like something of a barrier against these encroaching prejudicial forces that have since taken over our country. And the second time was this past week, amid the ongoing chaos of our current administration. And I was struck by how it suddenly felt even more vital to see this humane depiction of a community primarily comprised of upstanding immigrant workers. Has your own perception of the film evolved in recent months?

I went through that process, in a very personal way, when I did this miniseries back in 2004 called The New Americans. It followed immigrants coming to America at a time that was particularly fraught, politically, around immigrants. The presidential election was going on and Patrick Buchanan was saying we need to close the borders. It was a lot of the same rhetoric that we hear now. We followed a Palestinian story that was profoundly impacted by post-9/11 prejudice. When I did that series, I was trying to figure out how I felt in my own heart about the real change going on in America, in terms of its diversity. Not just black-white, but the immigrant experience. Even though I was a good liberal, I was like, Well, how is that going to change America? Will America still be in America in that way? And that was a great experience for me. It was eye-opening and beautiful.

With this film, since the election, the thing that has really hit me the most is honestly not the immigrant part — it’s the justice part of it. We have a president who doesn’t care, despite his rhetoric on the campaign trail, about people. He doesn’t care about Americans and he certainly doesn’t care about immigrants. He doesn’t care about The Other. And he has put a guy, [Jeff Sessions], in as the Attorney General who wants to re-wage the War on Drugs and roll back any kinds of investigations into abuses of power by police departments across the country that his own department, before he became the head of it, had gone and uncovered. We’re living in a time where there’s a potential for major retrenchment in terms of justice in America, no matter who it applies to. That part is what I think about in relation to the film because here’s a family from an immigrant community who had the wherewithal to actually fight and not roll over. They had the wherewithal to say, “We’re gonna fight this to the end.” Unfortunately, the great majority of people that the system of justice bears down on in this country don’t have the wherewithal that the Sungs have. Who’s gonna stand up for them?

You draw a parallel between Thomas Sung and It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey early on in the film. How did that come about? It’s so perfect.

I wish I could say I thought of it but I didn’t. A number of people in the community have made that connection to [Thomas]. Ti-Hua Chang, the reporter who [appears] in the film, voiced it. He said, “You have to understand something about Thomas Sung. He’s the George Bailey of Chinatown.” [Chang] gave us that interview early on. And it was like, Exactly. We knew we wanted to find a way to possibly incorporate that into the film but we didn’t know how. And then when we were done with the principal shooting, I asked Marc to ask the Sungs if they were fans of the movie. And he called them up and said, “[Thomas] likes the movie and Hwei Lin watches it every year around Christmastime.” I decided we had to find a way to get them watching the film. That’s when I had the idea that that would be a great idea to open the film: them watching the movie and using that as a springboard.

In so many earlier cuts, we came back to [It’s a Wonderful Life] a lot. And then we got feedback when we started showing it to colleagues, who were like, “You’re overplaying it.” So we pulled back on it. But it ended up being a perfectly apt analogy on so many fronts. That film represents pushing back against bullying forces that are not good for the community. Thomas, even in his demeanor and his stature, is like an older, Chinese version of Jimmy Stewart. Bailey’s bank in the movie was a pillar in the community. It wasn’t about making lots of money. That’s exactly what Abacus’ role in the community has been. It’s a bank that does what banks were always supposed to do. The big banks are not really about that anymore.

And you have that perfect tie-in where you see Thomas greet his customers during the run on the bank a decade ago. That montage is so reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life.

I think that probably cemented, for the people in the community, that he was that guy. He brought that run to an end by going out there and just saying, “Here. Touch my hand. Feel my hand.” You’re going to be fine.

You have had one of the most interesting and illustrious careers in American filmmaking.

That’s nice of you to say. I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been fun. [Laughs]

You make it sound like this is your last film.

No. I’m in the middle of a massive miniseries I’m doing right now. I spent a year in a public high school in the Chicago area that has, for decades, wrestled with its failure to significantly improve the academic performance of its black students, despite being incredibly well-funded and very diverse and very liberal. I live in Oak Park, which is this historic suburb right on the western edge of the city. My kids went to this high school. And I knew, or thought I knew, what goes on in poor, inner-city schools that fail its students. But I wondered, What’s going on in Oak Park? So I was able to get permission from the school board to go in there for a year and film a year in the life of this school and follow a bunch of kids. And they’re very different kinds of kids than I normally follow. They’re not living in abject poverty, although a number of [them] are not in great financial shape. They’re not at risk of joining gangs or being killed by gangs. These are kids who have stability in their lives. Yet they have their own level of struggles around race and education. The series is called America to Me, which is pulled from the famous Langston Hughes poem [“Let America be America Again”], the key line of which is “America never was America to me.” We filmed it all already and shot 1,200 hours. And now we’re editing like crazy.

If someone new to the medium was looking to get acquainted with your filmography, which works do you feel best embody your passions and pursuits as a filmmaker?

The film that people gravitate to, first and foremost, is Hoop Dreams, right? And then they might say, “Oh, and The Interrupters...”

…which didn’t get its due.

[Laughs] I appreciate that. But, you know, we got plenty of love. People go, “Oh, that’s the same world that those kids [from Hoop Dreams] came from.” They see a connection to it and I see a connection too. There’s a similar kind of storytelling. You’re following them around the streets, that kind of thing. I’m very proud of those films. But I also like the fact that I’ve done different kinds of films too. As much as I’m happy that anyone has seen any of my films and liked them, I sometimes think people assume I only make one kind of film. Abacus is pretty much different in a lot of ways. There are similarities but it’s different. It looks different. The Roger Ebert film, Life Itself, was different. It had vérité aspects to it, in terms of following Roger around during what happened to be the last four months of his life. But I like stretching myself in different directions. I don’t want to make the same kinds of films all the time. I don’t have a signature. And I’ve always admired filmmakers who didn’t just seem to make the same films over and over.

Is there a film of yours that you wish had received more attention from audiences?

That one’s easy… All of them! [Laughs] No, if there’s a film for which I have the most pride in having made… It’s funny because a lot of filmmakers know about it but the general population doesn’t. And that’s Stevie. It is the hardest film I’ve made. It is the most tortured film I’ve made. I feel like all my films are honest, but I would say Stevie is the most uncompromisingly honest film I’ve made. When I go to festivals, as many filmmakers come up to me for that film as Hoop Dreams. They’ll say, “I really liked Hoop Dreams but, of your films, Stevie, like, really hit me.” So, I would say that’s the film that feels the most underappreciated. But when you see it, you understand why. It’s not for everybody. It’s a long film. It’s a torturous film. But it’s also an empathic film.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail is now playing at IFC Center.

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