Director Steven James on his Crucial Doc Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

When discussing the 2008 financial crisis, the word "big" comes up a lot. The big banks, The Big Short, too big to fail. But the first American financial institution to be indicted for mortgage-lending misconduct after 2008 was not big, as director Steve James acknowledges in the title of his new documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which opens in New York on May 19.

"I had to inform them today that they have dropped from being the 2,651st largest bank to the 2,652nd largest bank, and it was a tough pill for them to swallow," joked James in a recent interview with The Credits. "Them" are Jill and Vera Sung, top executives with the bank based in Manhattan's Chinatown. The Sung sisters also spoke to The Credits in a separate interview.

Agreeing to be the subjects of a movie was not a simple decision for the siblings, who discussed it with their two other sisters as well as their parents, who include one of the bank's founders, Thomas Sung. "Everything in our family is always a caucus, where we have to all come and agree," said Vera Sung. "I was OK with it, because I thought it was important that this story be told.

Jill Sung, the bank's CEO, was not among the 19 Abacus employees who were indicted. Still, she was concerned how the film would turn out should the prosecution prove successful. "That's what I was worried about. We don't know what will happen. But Vera said that will make it even more important. It's important to document, if it went the other way."

The filmmaker, who prefers that the case's exact outcome not be revealed, wondered about the opposite possible ending. "If they're found innocent, does that make it all fine? And the answer is no."

James' beat has long been Chicago, whether the basketball courts of Hoop Dreams or the career of Roger Ebert in Life Itself. His connection to this story was through one of the movie's producers, Mark Mitten, a friend of Vera Sung.

"I was just kind of astounded by the whole thing," James recalled. "So we decided to go to New York and spend a few days with the family, with their permission, and try to get a sense of what the story might be, and could we tell it."

Jill Sung was familiar with James' work. "When Hoop Dreams came out, that was a very important documentary for me. I was not a big documentary person, but because of Hoop Dreams I became much interested in documentaries."

The sisters' parents were movie buffs, but they preferred classics like It's a Wonderful Life, which the director turned into a motif of his documentary. "Neither of them knew what Hoop Dreams was, and they definitely did not know who Steve James was," Vera Sung said. "But they opened up to him. It's a credit to him."

Jill Sung doesn't entirely share her parents' enthusiasm for the Frank Capra movie in which James Stewart plays earnest small-town banker George Bailey. "I've watched it once or twice," she said, grinning. "I have other favorite movies."

James laughed when asked about using scenes from It's a Wonderful Life in the film he made after the cinemaphiliac Life Itself. "All my movies from now on are going to have other movies in them," he joked. "I think that's a good way going forward."

Actually, he explained, "When I found that Mrs. Sung was a huge fan of the movie, and watched every year religiously, and could quote it, I thought, 'Well, we've got to do something with this.' "

The Capra clips worked, James decided, because Thomas Sung could be seen as "the George Bailey of Chinatown. He's a tall, lean, handsome man. Maybe the Chinese version of Jimmy Stewart."

Thomas Sung from ABACUS, a PBS Distribution. Photo by Sean Lyness.

James did not win the family's trust, he noted, by promising, " 'We're going to tell your story and damn those prosecutors!' We came in predisposed to be sympathetic to the family, because of Mark's relationship, and I very quickly made my own judgment about them and their character, when I started to hear their side of the story."

District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. and prosecutor Polly Greenberg did ultimately agree to be interviewed for the film, but while the trial was proceeding the filmmakers spent their time with the Sungs. Yet James wasn't concerned about getting too close to them.

"I don't believe in trying to keep distance from your main subjects. I actually go the opposite way. I also don't believe in lying to them, to ingratiate yourself into their confidence. That's why we were clear from the beginning that we were going to do everything we could to show the case against them."

James wasn't permitted to film or record the trial. "If I could have been in the courtroom, I would have been in the courtroom, of course. If I could have been in the prosecution's law offices, I would have been in the prosecution's law offices. If I could have been in the defense lawyers' offices during the case, I would have been there. Those guys I really pushed hard. They didn't let us in. But they were nervous about the whole thing."

His solution was to hire a courtroom illustrator to "create a baseline of imagery that we could then build on, in editing, once we established the parts of the trial we wanted to focus on."

"I didn't want to just have it be interviews about what happened, and shots of empty jury chairs," he added, and then laughed. "Although we did shoot all those shots, and they're in the movie!"

The film's narrative tension relies heavily on a juror, interviewed after the trial, who favored convicting the Sungs. "I think one of the real pleasures of watching the movie is wondering how it's going to turn out, because there is real tension. The juror, I think, carries a lot of weight," said James.

"Our co-producer, Nick Verbitsky, did an amazing job of tracking down the jurors. We said, Nick, we have to have one of those holdout jurors that caused this to be a 10-day deliberation. And then of course we absolutely want one who's on the other side of that, so we don't slant the portrayal of the jurors one way. And by God he found them."

The lack of courtroom access encouraged the director "to follow the Sung family throughout this ordeal, which we did in a verite fashion. We had to figure out, how do we tell the rest of the story?"

"Going in, I think we thought that there would be a lot of stuff about the actual trial," recalled Vera Sung. "The dynamics, the legal arguments. He actually was able to distill that and make it understandable."

Instead, she found, there was more about "Chinatown, the community that we work in. That's what he did well."

The complexities include seven Chinese languages and dialects spoken in the neighborhood, none of which the American-born Sungs fully understand, and which made it possible for some of their employees to engage in corrupt practices for a time without being caught.

"We speak Chinglish," said Jill Sung. "Isn't that sad?"

"We're hollow bamboo,"  Vera Sung added.

"She's referring to a derogatory term, where the first-generation Chinese say that we don't know our own culture," her sister explained. "So we're hollow bamboo."

No matter how assimilated the younger Sungs are, the sisters who worked at the bank believe Abacus was targeted because of ethnic or racial bias. If the indictments were "not for those reasons, the treatment was definitely influenced by that," Jill Sung said.

One reason to believe that is an incident recounted early in the film: After the indictments were issued in 2012, bank employees were chained together and paraded before observers.

"That seems to be a photo-op gone awry. But that was quite revealing," James said. "Would they have done that to white people? Lower-level white bank employees? I don't think so. David Lindorff, the journalist who's in the movie, says he doesn't think they would have done it to black employees. They would have at least thought through the optics of that."

"I do think that where the racism shows up most palpably is that, in the prosecution of the case, they wanted to give no credence to the realities of what it is to be an immigrant member of a community that has a cash economy. That is a feature of immigrant communities for hundreds of years in this country. It was as if none of that mattered. And to me that is racist."

James also thinks it's odd that he's one of the first to recount Abacus' travails. "I've tried to understand why no one deemed it important enough to cover. I think I get why. It's not a big bank. It was a state case. Nothing really sexy. It wasn't working with Mexican drug cartels and laundering money. It was garden-variety petty fraud. For all those reasons, I think, the mainstream press missed an actually very significant story. That we're happy to tell."

On the film festival circuit, the tale has been received in a way the director finds gratifying. "When that last card comes up that says, 'Abacus remains the only U.S. bank to be criminally indicted,' there's hissing," he said with a chuckle. "There's a palpable display of anger. And I like that, because we don't want to leave you with the sense that, 'Oh, it's all fine now.' It's not all fine now."