I can think of few institutions more maligned in the public consciousness than banks. The 2008 mortgage crisis saw the gatekeepers of world finance bring the global economy, and an untold number of families, to the brink of destruction in the never ending quest for growth. The following lack of prosecution and accountability served to further jade a populace already reeling from the crisis’ immediate personal impact on employment and prosperity, to the point where banks seem almost as if they exist solely to take money from their customers, rather than to protect and grow it for them.
So leave it to one of our greatest living documentarians to take for his latest subject a publicly maligned bank, in fact, the only bank to see any sort of prosecution in the wake of 2008’s crisis, and bring you over to their side. Steve James‘ Abacus: Small Enough to Jail focuses on Abacus bank in New York City’s Chinatown, who, as the title implies, was just the right size to scapegoat for the aforementioned crisis without potentially decimating the U.S. financial system.
Banks Are People Too. No, Really.
The film opens with Thomas and Hwei Lin Sung, the elders of the family behind Abacus, watching It’s a Wonderful Life. The scene serves a dual purpose in both developing Thomas as a character, who says he watches the film every year, and also as a reminder to the audience of an era where banks weren’t so inherently distrusted. Abacus is a community bank, where the bankers have personal relationships with their clientele and where closing on a loan is a family affair.
In serving the unique needs of this specific immigrant community, Thomas left his successful law practice to open this bank for reasons resembling altruism more than greed, a characterization I think few associate with their banks or bankers. This idea of banking as a public good is further reinforced as we are introduced to the Sung daughters, Jill, Vera, Chantrelle and Heather, who remain so consistently steadfast in their assertion of innocence in the face of the charges brought against the bank that you almost can’t help but trust their claims of innocence on an instinctual level. The Sungs want so much to help the community, but the DA is specifically accusing them of exploiting that very community, which elevates the charges from the financial to the personal.
As a sort of legal thriller, the case is presented via a mix of interviews and trial transcripts with accompanying courtroom illustrations. The film dutifully takes us through the chronology of the case, bringing us in and out of the present in a way that provides useful context at moments that require it, but keeps the immediacy and severity of the situation at the forefront. Never did I feel like the film went off on a tangent, each piece flows naturally from the last. But that an all-star like James is able to effectively show and narrativize what might at first seem like a dry “paper” case should come as no surprise.
Where the film shines brightest is in the moments featuring the whole family and the particular dynamic that comes with mixing kin and career, where lifelong relationships underly every discussion about the case. Watching Chantrelle repeatedly get talked over by every member of her family, one can imagine the years of frustration and arguments that might have contributed to her becoming a prosecutor. But that she left the very office bringing charges against her family in order to help build their defense goes to show how close this family is and how dear they hold the bank and its mission.
James takes the personification of Abacus a step further by equating the attack on the bank not only with an attack on the Sungs but one against the entire Chinatown community, whom the DA’s office sees as easy prey. Thomas spent years bringing new immigrants residents into the banking system, as Chinese notions of finance and loans as presented in the film appear to be based more on trust and personal knowledge than official documents and credit.
That the DA’s office would single out this bank, serving this community, when federal regulators were happy to work with Abacus to accommodate the special needs of their clientele, lent the prosecution’s case an air of cultural criticism on top of the dubious charges of institutional fraud.
A Hopeful Allegory
It’s that very aspect of the dominant culture, represented by government institutions, attempting to discredit, undermine, and ultimately assimilate a community, the bank, that exists both within and apart from it that makes Abacus so resonant today. The film is a testament that it is possible for trumped up and ill conceived assaults on immigrant communities to not only be effectively resisted, but in that resistance lead to their becoming stronger and closer than before.
It also shows how politically motivated law enforcement erodes confidence in the institutions supposedly set up to protect us, so much so that I imagine if you were a banker watching this film you might think twice should you have the opportunity to self-report wrongdoing, lest it lead to an existential threat to you and your employer. In that sense Abacus is a chilling reminder of the responsibility of government agencies to operate ethically, or face the dissolution of the public’s trust.
So often we speak of banks as faceless, inanimate entities, with a singleminded focus on financial growth no matter the cost; and it’s a reputation major banks have earned. In making this film, James not only had the same problem as the Sung’s defense team in overcoming that bias, clearly alive and well as evidenced by some of the juror interviews, but also in taking loan fraud, bank procedure, company hierarchies and paper trails and turning them into an engrossing documentary.
He achieves both goals by offering compelling context and framing the case with a potent emotional plea embodied in the sincerity of his subjects. It’s enough to make you want to pull out all your savings and open an account with Abacus. Should you have savings one day, anyway.
How are you feeling about banks these days?
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail opens today (May 19th) at the IFC Center in New York. It will expand to more U.S. cities beginning June 9th. Check their website to find out when it’ll be playing near you.
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